LOS ANGELES -- In dramatic testimony yesterday, an air traffic controller accepted blame for February's fatal runway collision in Los Angeles and the co-pilot of one plane told how his pilot died in the flaming wreckage.
It was the first public appearance by the 38-year-old controller, Robin Lee Wascher, since the accident and the first time she acknowledged publicly that her mistake had led to the crash.
Federal investigators say that because of her confusion, Ms. Wascher positioned a SkyWest commuter liner on the same Los Angeles International Airport runway on which she had just cleared a USAir Boeing 737 jetliner to land. The jetliner struck the commuter plane in a fiery explosion that killed 34.
While investigative records show that Ms. Wascher believed initially that the jetliner had been destroyed by a bomb, she testified yesterday that a short time after the accident, she figured out that the USAir craft had actually struck the smaller SkyWest commuter craft.
"I realized something went wrong," she said. "I went to the supervisor and I said, 'This [the SkyWest plane] is what USAir hit.' "
Ms. Wascher testified during the second day of National Transportation Safety Board hearings to determine the factors that led to the twilight crash. The board's conclusions and recommendations are not expected for several months.
Speaking calmly in succinct, measured phrases, she described her confusion. She said that she directed the SkyWest Metroliner onto the runway at a midpoint intersection, but she thought that she was talking to the pilot of a Wings West Metroliner that was on a taxiway near the end of the runway.
"Is this accident caused by mistaken identity?" an NTSB staff member asked her yesterday.
"Yes, it is," she replied.
Her testimony came after the surviving co-pilot of the jetliner told how he heard his pilot die in the crash.
"I heard two groans from Capt. [Colin F.] Shaw," co-pilot David Kelly said. "I could not see him [because of smoke that filled the cockpit], but I heard two groans. I've never been around a person dying, but I'm positive that what I heard was his death at that moment."
Mr. Kelly, the only member of the two cockpit crews to survive the accident, said there had been "no indication of trouble" as his jetliner approached the airport for a landing.
He said he scanned the airfield ahead through the evening darkness and, in fact, Captain Shaw mentioned to him that things were "looking good" as their jet prepared to touch down on LAX's Runway 24 Left.
"As far as we could tell there was nothing down the runway -- anywhere," said Mr. Kelly, who was at the controls of the big plane. "We touched down right where I had though we would, about 1,200 feet down the runway. . . .
"Just as I lowered the nose . . . that's when I saw in the windscreen the silhouettes of two props -- quickly, rapidly, filling the windscreen. . . . That airplane all of a sudden showed up out of nowhere."
Mr. Kelly said that after striking the other plane, his jetliner began skidding off the runway to the left, heading directly for an unused fire station beside the adjacent taxiway.
"I could see Captain Shaw's hands, attempting to shut down the engines," Mr. Kelly said. "And I'm doing everything I can to get that airplane stopped, but it won't stop. . . . We impacted that building very, very violently. . . ."
Mr. Kelly said that as the plane lurched to a stop, the cockpit filled with smoke. It was then, he said, that he heard Captain Shaw's groans.