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Originally published January 28, 2010 at 10:00 PM | Page modified February 2, 2010 at 5:58 PM

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10th anniversary of Alaska Flight 261

Those who lost loved ones when Alaska Airlines Flight 261 plunged into the Pacific Ocean off California have learned some hard, bitter truths in the 10 years since the crash.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Those who lost loved ones when Alaska Airlines Flight 261 plunged into the Pacific Ocean off California have learned some hard, bitter truths in the 10 years since the crash.

They've learned that time doesn't heal all wounds, that some injustices and wrongs can never be righted. They've learned that there are human vultures and con artists who prey on grief and tragedy.

Some have found peace and acceptance, but others still burn with anger. Some say the silver linings and deeper meanings of God's plans remain mysteries to them. Many believe love does transcend death in the end.

And most have learned to live with a broken heart.

"A part of you dies, and you never get it back," said Mark Hall, of Enumclaw, who lost his 19-year-old daughter, Meghann Hall, in the crash on Jan. 31, 2000.

As friends and relatives of Flight 261's victims prepare to mark Sunday's 10-year anniversary of the crash that claimed all 88 passengers and crew — 47 from the Puget Sound area — a number agreed to talk about the crash, the immediate aftermath and the lingering effects of the tragedy that reverberated through the region.

Their grief was compounded over the years by revelations that the crash could have been averted had Alaska Airlines been more vigilant in its maintenance of the plane. Even those who have tried to pry something positive from the tragedy say that knowledge painted their sorrow with outrage.

"I am a person who has always taken the high road," said Winston Ing, of Mercer Island, who lost his only child, Russell Ing, 28, in the crash. "To find out that it was preventable, that it was motivated by pure greed ... well, you don't go through something like that and remain the same."

Flight 261 was traveling from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco — and later to Seattle — when it crashed into the Pacific Ocean off Southern California, between Port Hueneme and Anacapa Island. The plane — a McDonnell Douglas MD-83 — was full of families and groups of friends returning to Seattle after vacations in Mexico.

"It was a plane full of exceptional people," said Anarudh Prasad, whose brother Anjesh Vinod "A.J." Prasad, a ramp service agent at Horizon Air, and two cousins perished in the crash.

David and Carolyn Clemetson, of Queen Anne, were traveling with four children: Miles Forster Clemetson, 6, and Spencer Clemetson, 6 months, and David's children from a previous marriage, Coriander Barnett-Clemetson, 8, and Blake Barnett-Clemetson, 6.

Their close friends Sarah and Rodney Pearson and the Pearsons' children, Rachel, 6. and Grace, 22 months, also were on the plane.

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Jim Ryan, a graduate of Western Washington University (WWU) and a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines, had invited his family and a group of close-knit friends from college to Mexico.

His parents, Terry and Barbara Ryan, and his brother Bradford "Pat" Ryan, of Redmond, were celebrating Jim's 30th birthday and Pat's college graduation.

They were joined by Jim Ryan's friends Michael Bernard, Deborah Penna, Russell Ing and Ryan and Abigail Busche.

Colleen Whorley, another WWU grad, and her fiancé, Monte Donaldson, had been in Puerto Vallarta with Whorley's family to celebrate the millennium. The couple had stayed on to backpack the interior and were flying home on Flight 261.

Rachel Janosik, 20, Meghann Hall and Hall's fiancé, Ryan Sparks, 20, also were on board. The trio, all standout athletes from Enumclaw, were traveling on passes Rachel had earned through working at Horizon Air.

The group was celebrating the recent engagement of Hall and Sparks and the joy of starting their adult lives.

Trouble in the tail

In the minutes before the crash, the two pilots reported problems with the MD-83's tail-section horizontal stabilizer, which controls the plane's up-and-down movements. The stabilizer is operated by a component called the jackscrew, which consists of a nut that rides up and down a screw as it turns to raise and lower the stabilizer.

Two years earlier, John Liotine, a lead mechanic at Alaska Airline's Oakland facility, had found that the jackscrew on the same aircraft was worn out. He ordered it replaced. But the plane was back in service within a few days without Liotine's work order completed.

Liotine went to federal authorities in late 1998 claiming the airline was cutting back on maintenance and falsifying inspection records and work orders to get planes back into operation faster.

After the crash, Alaska said Liotine's work order had not been acted upon because a second inspection team had retested the approximately $80,000 jackscrew and found it was within the legal limits of wear.

In the plane's wreckage, investigators found metal shavings indicating threads on the jackscrew had been stripped, causing the part's failure.

When the jackscrew failed, the stabilizer no longer could keep the plane aloft. Flight 261 plunged into the ocean.

In the resulting investigation, the National Transportation Safety Board found that Alaska's failure to properly lubricate and check the jackscrew for wear directly led to the plane's crash.

The board also found that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was at fault by failing to "properly oversee" the airline's maintenance operations.

A criminal investigation, launched after Liotine complained about maintenance before the crash, did not lead to charges even after the board posted its findings.

According to federal prosecutors, there was no evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Because Alaska Airlines and Boeing, which had acquired McDonnell Douglas, agreed to accept liability — or legal responsibility — for the crash, the case did not go to trial.

"It hurts that we never got our day in court," Mark Hall said. "There were a lot of corrupt things that happened to bring that plane down and a lot of corrupt things that happened afterward. We realize now that we are not ever going to get justice."

His wife, Mary Hall, said the family has found comfort in a few tangible improvements in training at Alaska for pilots, mechanics and inspectors. Because of the crash, the jackscrew is now one of the most scrutinized components on a plane. And under FAA pressure, Alaska made sweeping changes to its maintenance program that has led to a better safety record.

The airline now has a vice-president of safety who reports to the board of director's safety committee. The company participates in all FAA-sponsored safety reporting programs and has a quality assurance program in each operating division monitored by an independent internal evaluation process, according to Alaska spokeswoman Caroline Boren.

Alaska Airlines and Horizon Air have been additionally both been listed on the International Air Transport Association's Operational Safety Audit Registry after having satisfied more than 900 standards in eight operational areas and undergoing a successful audit every two years.

"We wanted to feel that we had prevented other families from going through this," Hall said.

Leaning on each other

Earlier this month, some of the family members who have been planning Sunday's memorial in Port Hueneme gathered in the Enumclaw home of Earlene Shaw to talk about their experiences after the crash.

Shaw, who lost her husband, Don Shaw, said the relatives call themselves "survivors" of the tragedy they refer to as "our crash." Many have become as close as family, she said.

They shared favorite memories of the people they loved: Russell Ing and his father both falling asleep at a classical-music concert and bolting during intermission because they thought the show was over; Meghann Hall playing pranks on her mother; and Rachel Janosik's ferocious softball skills and her "rocket of an arm"; Ryan Sparks' special concern for underdogs.

They recalled the horror of the days immediately after the crash when they learned that few, if any, bodies would be recovered intact. Most had to be identified by DNA, dental records and distinguishing marks such as tattoos and scars.

Some families received the remains of their loved ones in pieces and batches. Some received no remains.

Every family was deluged with calls exactly one month after the crash — when lawyers are legally allowed to contact victims' kin.

"They were using us to do their thing, and that thing was money," Mark Hall said.

Some families who lost men had to deal with fraudulent claims of paternity — from women in India and Central America — that had to be defended. The claimants were looking to reap money from any financial settlement with the airline.

Insurance companies for the airlines, trying to quantify the loss, tried to make people put pricetags on their children, spouses, parents and siblings. The victims suddenly were defined by their jobs and potential earnings.

Kathy Janosik, Rachel's mother, said attorneys for the insurance companies made the families feel they had to defend their loved ones' worth.

"My son was an artist," Pierrette Ing said. "Does that mean his life had less value? What about the grandbabies I might have had?"

Family members did receive settlements, but the amounts, which were not made public, varied.

Clinging to memories

The survivors of Flight 261 have found ways to heal, cope and endure because they've had to.

Some found solace in their faith. Many cling to the good memories or see evidence of their loved one's spirit around them.

Pamela Sparks said she believes her son has left pennies for her to show her he's there. Pierrette Ing believes her son comforts her by returning lost objects. Paul Bernard and his wife believe their son, Michael, has visited them as a crow.

Anarudh Prasad just learned that his wife is expecting their third child, a boy.

"A.J. told us before he left that he would see us in 10 years," Prasad said. "I had forgotten that."

He said he thought his brother was joking, but as a Hindu believes his brother will be reincarnated.

"We do believe he is coming back," Prasad said, "and my whole family is ecstatic."

Many survivors also said they find some comfort in knowing that their loved ones were together, with family or best friends, when they died.

Or that their last days had been glorious.

"The pictures we got after the crash were the best gift," Mary Hall said. "The kids looked so happy! They had such a good time!"

Many of them have found strength in each other.

"It used to make me so angry when people would say something good would come of this," Pamela Sparks said. "But I guess if there is anything, it's how close we have all become. It's a second family to lean on when you just want to die."

Some take comfort in the many memorials to the victims of Flight 261 that have been erected locally: a bench in an Enumclaw sports field; a playground on Queen Anne named for Rachel Pearson; a wall of tiles at WWU; a park bench in Eastlake that honors Seattle Times wine critic Tom Stockley and his wife, Peggy. Sunday's memorial will be held at a sundial monument erected in memory of the victims on the beach at Port Hueneme.

For Bonnie Fuller, of Malott, Okanogan County, who lost her oldest child, Monte Donaldson, the pain won't recede. She tries not to hold the anniversary of the crash sacred and is not going to be at Sunday's memorial in Port Hueneme.

"Some people find it healing, but for me, to look out at the water and see where the plane went down, it's not comforting," Fuller said.

Over the years, Alaska Airlines has spoken about the crash using words such as "profound sorrow" and "deep regret." But the survivors felt the airline stopped short of apologizing and accepting blame.

On Wednesday, the company issued this statement from Bill Ayer, chairman and CEO of Alaska Airlines:

"Our thoughts and heartfelt sympathies are with the families and loved ones of those who were lost on Flight 261, including 12 Alaska and Horizon employees whom we honor and remember. We are deeply sorry for the accident and the pain and grief it has caused for these families."

Some survivors of the crash still say those words aren't enough.

"A real apology is made face to face," Marianne Busche said.

"And it's made with an acknowledgment of what went wrong and how it was fixed," added her husband, Jim.

The widow of pilot Ted Thompson, Marilyn Thompson Bole, who now lives in Enumclaw, says she is not a person to dwell on loss.

She has remarried, to an Alaska Airlines maintenance inspector, and she finds pleasure in raising money and serving as chairman of the board for the Ted Thompson/Bill Tansky Memorial Scholarship Fund. Tansky was the co-pilot of Flight 261.

Nevertheless, she said, the story needs to be remembered.

"I want it kept alive so that the people behind the desks, the people who value money over safety, the people who will cut corners, will not be lulled into thinking they can relax," Thompson Bole said.

"You have to do what you're supposed to do because it's the right thing."

Christine Clarridge: 206-464-8983 or cclarridge@seattletimes.com

Seattle Times staff reporter Steve Miletich contributed to this report, which includes material from Times archives.

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