The controller who directed two airliners onto the same runway, sending them to a deadly collision, cried in a tower office after the crash, smoking a cigarette and murmuring, "I'm sorry, I'm sorry," over and over again, it was reported Saturday.

A colleague, who spoke to the Los Angeles Times on the condition of anonymity, said the woman's co-workers spent hours consoling her after the Feb. 1 accident, hiding her in a Manhattan Beach hotel to escape publicity.The controller, identified as Robin Lee Wascher, 38, was escorted home by off-duty controllers after the crash, which occurred midway through her swing shift. Her co-workers then spent the evening comforting her.

She was reportedly so distraught in the hours following the collision that colleagues didn't know how to tell her that nearly three dozen people, including pilots of both planes, had been killed.

"To say that she's remorseful is probably redundant," the colleague said. "How would you feel if your worst nightmare had come true? An accident like that is our worst nightmare . . . We all think about it. It's what we're trained not to do."

The collision involving a USAir Boeing 737 and a SkyWest commuter plane on a runway at Los Angeles International Airport claimed 34 lives, including all 12 passengers on the smaller plane and 22 of the 89 people aboard the USAir plane.

"We wanted to make sure she wasn't alone," the colleague said. "We talked about people and events and what's been going on in the tower. It was difficult, but we tried to find things to laugh at."

Alan Davidson, a San Diego psychologist who has treated controllers involved in accidents, said such gallows humor, which combined with camaraderie, is a way to relieve stress.

"Gallows humor . . . is not laughing at it the way we might laugh at a comedian," Davidson said. "The humor infuses flexibility back into the personality and that's what we want someone to do."

After National Transportation Safety Board investigators revealed that controller error was to blame in the crash, Wascher's friends moved her into the Radisson Hotel in Manhatten Beach. Fellow controllers again stayed with her.

Wascher graduated from the FAA Academy in Oklahoma City nine years ago. Her most recent job was in Aspen. Before that, she worked at a larger aiport in Gulfport, Miss. and a smaller one in Greenville, Miss.

Some who worked with Wascher have characterized her as a loner with a strong, no-nonsense personality.