05/29/2012 10:12 am ET Updated Jul 29, 2012

The Day a Plane Crashed on Our Street

It is a house like any other on our street. Small and neat, with a few tidy shrubs in the yard and a row of potted plants on the front steps. Palm trees overhead and green grass underfoot. The only sign that disaster occurred there is a patch of flattened sod near the sidewalk.
Where the plane crashed.

My five-year-old and I have walked past the house many times, catching bugs or collecting colored leaves. Ours is a quiet street in northern Los Angeles, a suburb known for good schools and low crime.

Angela and I skipped our walk that evening. It was a school night, so I put her to bed around 8 p.m. When I left her bedroom, the lights in the hallway flickered a few times, then went out completely. As our apartment fell into darkness, I heard a loud rumbling sound outside. Thunder, I figured, but the parade of sirens told me otherwise.

Something had happened.

I grabbed a flashlight and checked on Angela, who was asleep under her covers despite the racket outside. I lit candles, then went out to the balcony to see if my neighbors knew what had happened. I found them staring up at the night sky, which had filled with police and news helicopters. One chopper circled, its beam of white light trained on an area about two blocks east of our apartment building.

News spreads fast these days, especially in places like Los Angeles. We learned that the pilot of a small Cessna traveling from Phoenix to Van Nuys had experienced engine trouble. His plane clipped power lines and sheared branches off trees along our street before entangling in electrical wires, flipping upside down and landing with a thunderous crunch in the front yard of that neat little house.

As my neighbors and I watched the helicopters circle, we shared an unspoken sentiment.

That could have been us.

Back when Angela and I first moved to California, we explored all the playgrounds in our new city. There were so many to choose from -- some with shade, some with sand. One even had a circle of waterspouts that sprayed the children, sending them into slippery fits of giggles.

But Angie's favorite spot was the "big slide playground," known for its two-story tower of slides, tunnels and ladders. She loved climbing to the top, but was always too scared to slide back down.

One morning, when Angela was halfway up a ladder, I saw something shiny fall from the top of the tower. It tumbled end over end before landing with a hollow, tinkling sound onto the metal platform below.

Someone's water bottle, I figured, tossed from above by a curious child -- but the looks on mothers' faces told me otherwise.

It was a bottle of Jim Beam, made of glass and not quite empty.

We put the bottle in the trash and went back to watching our children play, no one willing to say what each of us was thinking.

That could have fallen on my child.

Six months later, on a Friday morning in December, I set out for grad school early to miss the morning traffic. The streets were clear and quiet as I made my way through Hollywood. West on Sunset Boulevard, left onto Vine Street. The intersection is usually crowded with commuters and tourists, but on that particular morning, at that particular time, it was smooth sailing.

Two hours later, a gunman walked down the middle of Sunset, firing randomly at cars and pedestrians. One driver was fatally shot in the head. Police killed the shooter, and his body lay draped in white cloth in the street for hours as investigators performed their scrutinous routine.

Those who made it through the intersection shook their heads, as though they were trying to jostle the thought from their minds.

That could have been me.

I'm not sure why some of us are allowed to skirt disaster while others must confront it. I suspect it has something to do with luck, but luck seems a feeble explanation.

Is it bad luck when a childhood friend gets cancer, or good luck when we get a clean bill of health? Are we spared from catastrophe by chance, or are we somehow chosen?

Even if I knew the answer, it would change nothing about how precarious our lives are, how loosely we hold onto this world, or how vulnerable we are to whatever waits around the corner.
The difference between providence and peril is slight. It is a walk not taken. A left-hand turn. It is a hesitation, a change of plans, a lucky bounce.

Life is random and chaotic, and something bad can happen at any moment. If I think about it too closely, I want to crawl into bed with my daughter and never crawl out.

But if something bad can happen at any moment, then so can something good.

A plane can fall from the sky and hit nothing, hurt no one. A pilot can crawl from his own wreckage and go home to kiss his wife.

A glass bottle can tumble onto a crowded playground without breaking.

And a five-year-old girl and her mother can take an evening walk, collecting bugs and gathering leaves, with barely a glance to the California sky.