Plane crash victim shares ordeal with ABC7

One of 1985's Sun Valley Mall plane crash survivors re-told the story of that tragedy to ABC7 News.

December 23, 2010 7:15:48 PM PST
Twenty-five years ago, a small plane crashed into Concord's Sun Valley Mall. Seven people were killed that night and dozens of people were hurt. One of the survivors re-told the story of that tragedy to abc7's Laura Anthony.

On Dec. 23, 1985, Wendy Guadagni-Schmit was a San Diego college student, visiting family in the Bay Area. She and her 22-year-old cousin Pamela Stanford went to Sun Valley Mall, which crowded with thousands of last-minute shoppers.

"My cousin and I went over to the mall to pick up her engagement ring. Her fiancé had the diamond enlarged for Christmas and she wanted to have it for Christmas Eve," Guadagni said.

While they waited for the ring, the roof above them exploded.

"I thought it was a light show, but it was really the little bulbs in the chandeliers exploding," Guadagni-Schmit said. "I didn't know I was really on fire. I didn't see like flaming stuff, it was more like dark clouds and things were hitting me and trapping us where we were."

The burning debris was from a twin engine Beachcraft Baron airplane that had crashed into the mall.

"People were exiting. They didn't know what was going on, didn't know if there was an explosion or if it was an aircraft," then Contra Costa Fire Chief Bill Maxfield said.

"They had severed one of the major mains feeding the sprinkler system, so you had water gushing out but you didn't have the spray that you want from a sprinkler system to cool and control the fire," former fire marshall Darrell Harguth said.

Guadagni-Schmit was among 79 people injured on the ground. She had third degree burns on her face, hands and legs. Stanford was burned over 80 percent of her body and she died the next day.

"The loss of life was really hard, and through the years you still have just that special place in your heart for her," she said.

Three others in the mall also died, including a 14-month-old boy.

The pilot in the Sun Valley crash was 67-year-old Jim graham. On that foggy night, graham and two passengers were returning to Concord's Buchanan Field from a trip to San Luis Obispo.

"At 8:33 the night of the crash, Graham radio the tower at Buchanan Field to say he was on his approach. Two minutes later, he radioed again to say he had missed the approach.

The only transmission after that was garbled.

"This pilot was on approach knowing the weather was very questionable. In fact, Buchanan Field was closed because of reduced visibility just before this pilot made his approach to Buchanan Field," ABC7 Aviation Expert Ron Wilson said.

An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found no mechanical problems with the plane and concluded the cause of the crash was pilot error and spatial disorientation.

"Real simply, it's becoming unaware of where you are in space and where you are relative to the ground," flight instructor U.J. Emetarom said.

Graham and his two passengers died in the fiery wreckage.

"When these accidents occur, you reflect on what kind of guy he was and whether he was a risk-taking kind of guy and Jim wasn't like that. He was a real careful guy," Graham's former student Geoff Logan said.

After the crash, Guidani spent three months at the Alta Bates Burn Center in Berkeley and over the years has undergone 38 surgeries.

Today, Guadagni-Schmit lives in Pleasanton with her husband and two sons and she has never returned to Sun Valley mall. But despite all the pain she endured and the scars she carries to this day, she believes it's important to remember what happened that day 25 years ago.

"Things are going to happen, crazy weird things are going to happen to you and you just need to have the strength to get through them," Guadagni-Schmit said.


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