PASADENA, CALIF., FEB. 2 -- In the pitch-black cabin of the crashed airliner, with red-orange flames blazing outside and the air filled with acrid smoke, Paula Garavaglia groped toward an exit door, thankful for the joking flight attendant who had cajoled her into watching the safety briefing at the beginning of USAir Flight 1493.
"Don't push, don't push," passengers screamed, climbing over the collapsed backs of seats to reach the door. For Garavaglia, who soon was caught in the doorway, pulled in both directions, there was no time to think in a crash of stunning suddenness just seconds after the landing of what had been a long, pleasant flight.
Of the 101 people involved in the crash Friday night, Garavaglia was among the 56 who escaped uninjured or with minor injuries.
Sitting with her husband, Burt, this morning in their hillside suburban home, Garavaglia, a 37-year-old manager for Farmers Insurance, said she never saw the small SkyWest Metroliner commuter plane that was hit by the jetliner carrying her and dragged several hundred yards across a Los Angeles International Airport runway. All she knows, she said, is that she was very lucky, and that she will probably "get right back in the saddle" and take her scheduled business flight to Texas next Sunday, even if memories of Flight 1493 do not fade.
Garavaglia boarded the flight Friday afternoon with two colleagues in Columbus, Ohio, after a business trip. A flight attendant had entertained them with talk of his distaste for snowy Midwest climates.
When he gave the safety demonstration on board, and pointed out the exit door next to seat 11F, she paid attention.
She was in seat 13C, two rows back on the opposite aisle. "Lucky 13," she said.
The Pacific sunset was beautiful as the Boeing 737 pulled around to land in Los Angeles. The approach seemed faster than usual, and a man two seats over said he heard an odd noise as the wing flaps moved.
The landing was hard, though not alarmingly so. Four seconds passed. She felt a thump and almost instantly "all I could see out the window on my left was an orange glow of fire."
An older passenger behind her began to yell, "Everybody stay calm! Keep your seat belt fastened! Keep your head down and brace yourself!"
Garavaglia quickly refastened her belt, bent her head and pushed her hands against the seat in front of her. She could already smell the fumes and see the smoke. "My immediate thought was that I was going to suffocate to death before I burned to death," she said.
Burt Garavaglia, 38, a public affairs executive for Farmers Insurance, was turning off La Tijera Boulevard on the way to meet his wife's flight when he saw the smoke rising in the west. The radio reported nothing, and in the baggage area, the arrival board still read "Flight 1493, 6:11, On Time."
When his watch showed 6:30 p.m., he went back to his car, turned on the radio and quickly learned that a jetliner just like Paula's -- he checked the booking sheet -- had crashed.
After striking the smaller plane, the 737 with 89 passengers and crew careered across the airfield, spewing flaming bits of wreckage in its wake. It crashed to a halt against an abandoned airport fire station.
Paula Garavaglia said the woman sitting next to the nearest exit door panicked. A man reached over and pushed the door open. The rush of air added to the smoke. For a long minute, Garavaglia waited for those in front of her to move out, then found, as her colleague, Gary Dunham, tried to pull her out, that her foot was caught inside.
She struggled free, sat down briefly on the hot metal of the wing, then jumped 10 feet to the ground and, she recalled, "ran like hell."
While fire trucks screamed in, she was led to a bus and taken to a vacant waiting area where each passenger had a ticket fastened to their wrist declaring them "Delayed," "Injured" or "Deceased."
Burt was now a short distance away, frightened and fascinated as he watched television coverage of the disaster from the airline lounge where relatives had been taken.
Airline officials could tell him little, but when he called Paula's father in Pasadena, he heard the welcome words: "Burt, Paula just called. She said she's okay."
Within an hour they were hugging in the lounge. Paula seemed fine except for a missing shoe and a strong scent of airplane fuel. The flight attendant who had helped her find the way out was nowhere to be seen. Today, USAir reported that he had been injured but survived.