There’s a show on television called Air Disasters, and some time ago they ran a segment on the September 25, 1978 PSA crash in San Diego.
I remember that day very well. Like everybody else, I saw the news coverage on television. On approach to the airport, the PSA jet had collided with a Cessna flying in the area. The jet’s right wing caught on fire, and both planes crashed. Everyone on the planes, along with seven people on the ground, perished.
[SIDENOTE: The photo above is of the actual plane going down. The collision was so loud it was heard on the ground, and a photographer aimed his camera upward and took that picture.]
But what I didn’t know, until my sister phoned me, was that a friend of mine had been on board the PSA jet. He was only 26 and was on his way to San Diego to open a photography studio.
I debated whether or not to record the Air Disasters show. I wasn’t sure I wanted to know what my friend went through those last terrifying seconds of his life. After I did record it, it sat in my DVR a couple of days before I got up the courage to watch it.
A lot of things, I saw, went wrong that day. I discovered several factors had contributed to the crash. For example, an imminent collision alarm had gone off in the control tower but was ignored because the alarm had been sounding when there was no problem. The PSA pilot had seen the Cessna but then had lowered his seat, which took it out of his line of vision. The Cessna was flown by a student pilot who was learning to operate by instruments only, and so he was wearing a helmet that allowed him to see nothing but the control panel. And for some inexplicable reason, he had changed course. The radio transmission from the PSA pilot was a bit garbled, but it sounded to the air traffic controller like the pilot had said he had already flown past the Cessna. The combination of these incidents led to a terrible disaster.
Something else went wrong that day, horribly wrong. It wasn’t something that caused the crash. It was something that happened after the crash, or rather, something that didn’t happen after the crash. As ashamed as I am to admit it, not once did it occur to me to pray for the soul of my friend.
I had been raised Catholic, attended Catholic elementary school, and in fact was teaching in a Catholic high school at the time. I knew about Purgatory. I knew how important it is to pray for our deceased friends and relatives.
Why, oh why did it not occur to me to pray for my friend? You’d think all the news coverage, including a photo of the plane going down, wing afire, on the cover of Life magazine, (yes, that picture above is the one) would be enough to kick-start me into a rosary, at least. Yet somehow, it wasn’t. Why not?
Well, I’ll tell you why. That is what happens when you become a tepid Catholic.
If you’d asked me back then, I would have told you I was a great Catholic. I put in my hour at Mass every Sunday. I put money into the collection basket. Hey, I even taught in a Catholic school!
Yet the rest of the time I pretty much ignored God, except, of course, when I wanted a personal favor. My rosary was packed away in a drawer. I couldn’t remember the last time I had been to Confession.
In Luke 17:10 Jesus has some harsh words for those who do the bare minimum, calling them unworthy servants. In Revelation 3:16, He even states that He spits lukewarm souls out of his mouth. (The Douay-Rheims version uses the word “vomits” instead of “spits.”)
I thank God that He eventually wacked me over the head with a spiritual 2 x 4, and I finally came to my senses. Prayers and Masses were offered for my friend and other souls for whom I should have pleaded.
I don’t know if such things work retroactively. But, if my prayers were too late for my friend, I am certain they were applied to other members of the Church Suffering.
Let’s not forget those who have passed on before us. “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.” (Matthew 5:7) And let’s be useful, not worthless, servants who live our faith daily through prayer and sacrifice.