From the Bee Archives: After 30 years, a Farrell's healing

Originally published April 1, 2002

Observers at the annual Executive Airport air show that day in 1972 said they knew the old war jet on runway 12-30 wasn't going to make it.

Its nose lifted once, then twice. Its tail never did.

Sixteen thousand pounds of bullet-shaped metal ricocheted off the berm next to Freeport Boulevard at 150 miles per hour and hurtled at eye level across the street, piercing one, then two cars.

Across the street, at Farrell's Ice Cream Parlour, identical 3-year-old twins Kristi and Kerri Francis of Stockton were eyeing an ice cream concoction called "The Zoo" that had just arrived at their table.

Kristi at first had not wanted to go when invited by their baby sitter's family. Kerri, the adventurous one, talked her into it.

"Kristi, we get to go have ice cream!" she said. They brought their Barbies and sang "This Old Man" on the ride up from Stockton.

Occasionally in the years since, people have suggested to Kerri - now with the married name of McCluskey - that she must have been too young to remember that Sunday firsthand, as if the pain is more borrowed than real.

McCluskey has sharp blue eyes and a self-described feisty streak. "I remember," she says. "Don't tell me I don't."

People were singing "Happy Birthday." A restaurant employee held a big drum. He hit it. Boom.

The jet bore into the restaurant at 4:25 p.m.

"It went dark," McCluskey says. "People were screaming. The place got all smoky. I couldn't see. I was pinned under something."

She was carried to an ambulance, her femur snapped. She never saw her sister.

Kristin Dawn Francis, age 3 years, 9 months, perished Sept. 24, 1972, along with 21 others in what was then described as the worst air-ground aviation disaster in U.S. history.

Twelve of the victims were children.

Nine members of one family died.

Two victims were a husband and wife in their car on Freeport Boulevard.

A 23rd person was hit and killed by a car minutes later as she ran toward the ice cream parlor, thinking - wrongly - that her grandchildren were inside.

In Sacramento lore, it's simply called "the Farrell's crash." It stunned a city. Farrell's was the place for families.

"We all went there," says south-area resident Illa Collin, a county supervisor. Her children were walking to Farrell's with neighborhood kids when the crash occurred.

Farrell's never reopened. As time passes, fewer people remember.

This summer, that will change, thanks to McCluskey. She has gotten City Hall to agree to build a memorial at the site.

"It's going to be a special place," Mayor Heather Fargo said, "an important memorial for our city."

Because the city budget is tight, Fargo and Councilman Jimmie Yee are putting some of their own office funds into the $20,000 pot to pay for a small patio, a bench and a plaque listing the names of those killed near what once was the ice cream parlor's front door.

McCluskey is trying to raise an additional $5,000 to add a fountain, a second bench and rose bushes for each family involved. She set up an account for donations at the Gifts to Share nonprofit corporation.

"My hope is that if people wanted to do something back then, well, it's not too late," McCluskey said. "Just because so much time goes by, it doesn't really change anything."

She and the city plan a ceremony sometime later this year. McCluskey has tracked down a few relatives of people killed that day and wants to find more, including rescuers.

The effort has dredged up some difficult memories for her. But, she says, "This is something I have to do."

McCluskey is 33 years old. She and her husband, Andrew, live in Elk Grove with their children, Kristin, 4, and Connor, 2. She teaches second grade and hopes to become a counselor for students with problems.

"I feel this sense of urgency to help make somebody else's life a little better," she said. Especially children who have suffered loss. "I can tell them there is a wonderful life to live."

Her own life has been good, she says. But for much of the past 30 years, there has been a hole.

She and her twin sister shared a language even before they could speak. Kristi was the thoughtful one, Kerri the impetuous one - play now, worry later. She got Kristi to drink food coloring with her and to sneak out of the house to go on a rubber band hunt in the driveway.

"I was good at talking her into things. Deep down I think she went that day because I talked her into it."

For awhile afterward, when she was young, it didn't seem so bad. "I missed her, but I knew I was going to see her again. I had faith."

The family kept Kristi's memory a part of family life, McCluskey said. They put her stocking on the mantel each Christmas along with the others and got her a pumpkin at Halloween.

At 10, Kerri found a poem her father had written, lamenting that Kristi had gone so far away. It was the first time, she says, that she realized her sister was really gone.

Toward her teen years, she felt lonely. She later would join a support group called Twinless Twins.

"As I've gotten older, it's been harder to deal with," she said. "The end of September, I always get depressed."

She had vowed never to live anywhere near Sacramento. Yet it's where she ended up. It may be, she says, because she really has moved on with her life. But, she acknowledges, it also may be that she has unfinished business here.

Last year, she read that the city of Sacramento is turning the site where Farrell's once stood into the city's police and fire headquarters.

And, she learned, runway 12-30, pointing right at the building, still is in use.

"That's when I first got angry," she said. "I felt, 'Didn't you learn from it?' "

She wrote a letter to the mayor, complaining. Then a second, then a third. She got a meeting with several government officials, including airport people.

The city project was nearly done and would not be stopped, she learned. Officials said they were satisfied it was safe.

Nor can the runway be closed, county airports official Rob Leonard said. It is needed for about 35,000 takeoffs and landings annually.

McCluskey and her husband say they have not given up trying to persuade officials to close the runway. But during her talks with officials, it became clear there was one thing she and officials could agree on: It's time for a memorial.

Lynn Mehren of Elk Grove also agrees.

Mehren's daughter, Nancy Rodriguez, died at Farrell's that day. She was 8. Mehren heard about McCluskey's efforts and tracked her down.

"Kerri is an amazing young woman," Mehren said last week.

For years, Mehren kept a trunk with her daughter's belongings - Storybook dolls, a Bluebird outfit - locked in the garage. She couldn't bring herself to open it.

"Since I've met Kerri, I've had more strength," she said. "I opened the trunk. I brought out the dolls. I have them on display now. They are so beautiful.

"I think it is time for this," she said. "It is time for healing."

For McCluskey, the healing involved a frightening personal step.

For 30 years, McCluskey had avoided that site.

Then, a city official suggested they meet there to check it out while planning for the memorial.

"Oh God," McCluskey thought. "I don't know if I can do this."

But she got there early. "I stood there and looked straight down the runway."

She fingered a tiny gold cross on a chain around her neck. It says Kristi on it. Her grandfather had given each girl one. This one she wears on special occasions.

"I had this overwhelming sense of peace," she said. "I'm making something positive come about."