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The Bright Shining Lie of Flight 261

May 26, 2000|Steve Chawkins

Thanks to the miracle of e-mail, the inspirational message about Alaska Airlines Flight 261 has circled the world.

Here it is:

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"An Alaska Airlines pilot, involved in the investigation of the horrific crash of Alaska Flight 261, has listened to the cockpit voice recorder from the downed plane and he reported that for the last nine minutes of the flight, the wife of the pastor from Monroe WA can be heard sharing the Gospel with [other] passengers over the plane's intercom system. Just before the final dive into the Pacific Ocean, she can be heard leading the sinner's prayer for salvation.

The pilot also reported that the flight data recorder from the plane indicates that there is no good reason for how the plane was able to stay in the air for those final nine minutes. But it did stay in the air until the pastor's wife had a chance to share the Gospel with the very attentive passengers . . . "

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To many, the image is soothing and lovely, a beam of sunlight shining through the darkness. Even if you're not religious, you can see the woman's efforts as noble and be grateful for the peace that must have suffused many passengers moments before the plane's tragic plunge into the waters off Point Mugu.

If only it were true.

Over the last few months, government investigators have heard the story time and again. And each time they're asked, they deny it.

On Wednesday the FAA released tapes of the tense reports from the crew of the doomed plane to air traffic controllers in Los Angeles. No religious messages could be heard in the background.

"There's absolutely nothing like that on our tapes," said FAA spokesman Les Dorr.

The National Transportation Safety Board has yet to release tapes from the cockpit voice recorder, which monitors conversations among the cockpit crew. But NTSB spokesman Terry Williams warned against expecting confirmation of the luminous scene described in the e-mail.

"We have no knowledge of anything of that sort on the tapes," he said.

Then how did this scenario come to be taken seriously?

The easy answer, of course, is that people believe what they wish to believe--especially people who are desperate to find meaning in the wreckage of so many lives.

The tougher answer entails basic research.

In this case, the heavy lifting was done by David and Barbara Mikkelson, an Agoura couple who run a Web site (http://www.snopes.com) devoted to tracking down urban legends.

"People used to tell these stories face to face, over the back fence, unconsciously making little changes as they went," said Barbara Mikkelson, a homemaker who devotes most of her spare hours to the Web site. "But with the Internet, people just forward these things unchanged, at the speed of light. Seeing the same exact story three or four times can make it more believable."

In fact, Joe and Linda Knight, co-pastors of a church in Monroe, Wash., were passengers on Flight 261. They had been in Mexico to check on a mission they had set up there.

But nobody can know how they or their terrified cabin mates spent their last minutes, despite the Internet tale.

In a search of newspapers around the United States, the Mikkelsons discovered its likely source.

Jeff Knight, the couple's son, also is a pastor. In March, he told an Associated Press reporter how he imagined the terrible scene on Flight 261:

"He says his mother would have been standing in the aisle of the struggling jet, preaching and helping frightened people find God. His father would have been writing a note to him, his wife and his 16-year-old sister, Jenny.

"That's the way they were," Knight was quoted as saying. "I know them so well. A lot of people met Jesus that day through my mom."

Maybe they did.

Maybe they didn't.

On the Internet, as in life, solace is where you find it, even when it's beyond the realm of objective truth.

Steve Chawkins can be reached at 653-7561 or at steve.chawkins@latimes.com.

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