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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Crash Date Marked by Butterfly Release, Lasting Memorial

Remembrance: Monument to Flight 261 victims is dedicated at Point Mugu. Anger at airline lingers.

February 01, 2001|STEVE CHAWKINS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

POINT MUGU — Bracing themselves against powerful winds and blowing sand, mourners laid carnations Wednesday on a chunk of granite beside the sea that claimed their loved ones.

A Navy band played taps, and groups hugged on the rocky outcropping, clustering against the cold. Some wore lapel buttons and T-shirts bearing the smiling faces of family members they lost exactly one year before when Alaska Airlines Flight 261 plummeted into the ocean eight miles away.

About 300 friends and relatives of the victims gathered at Naval Base Ventura County in Point Mugu for the dedication of a monument commemorating the crash.

Later in the day, a memorial service was held nearby.

The stone monument will be one of two in Ventura County, with a group of family members planning one with public access near the pier at Port Hueneme. Some were upset that the Navy's memorial is etched not just with an inscription but also with Alaska Airlines' logo, a portrait of an Eskimo.

"They might as well have put a picture of the jackscrew on there," said Sasha Poll of Seattle, alluding to a mechanical part implicated in the plane's abrupt descent.

The events completed two days of observances marking the tragedy's first anniversary. Eighty-three passengers and five crew members died when the jet bound from Puerto Vallarta to San Francisco and Seattle plunged into the Pacific. Nobody survived.

The naval base was headquarters for massive search and recovery efforts involving 70 agencies. The memorial stone was paid for by donations from the base's military and civilian employees, as well as local businesses and civic groups.

"It kind of called me here," said Rene Matson, one of dozens of base workers who showed up at the dedication.

During the 20-minute unveiling, Capt. James W. Rainwater, the base's commanding officer, praised the workers for their dedication. Patty Sanchez, who lost her daughter on Flight 261, thanked them for their "heroic efforts to bring our loved ones home."

Ed White, an Alaska Airlines executive, told the family members of his prolonged sorrow. "The loss is no less, the tears still fall, the heart still aches," said White, the airline's vice president of consumer service.

In addition to the crew members, seven airline employees and 23 of their friends and relatives died on Flight 261.

But those numbers do not mute the anger expressed by some family members who blame the crash on airline negligence. A lawsuit from 55 families has yet to be heard.

*

After a luncheon Wednesday, Paige Stockley, 38, of Seattle called on the crowd to remember the source of their pain.

"This is a great opportunity to get together, to grieve together," she told them. "But let's not forget the real reason we're here. We need to work together to bring the real guilty parties to justice."

Applause erupted after she spoke.

"I'm sick and tired of this sugar-coated event," Stockley said later. "It's all fine and good, but what are we doing after today?"

Julio Bermudez, 36, of San Francisco said he had mixed feelings about the anniversary observances, which were largely paid for by the airline.

"I only wish they would have focused all this energy on the maintenance department," he said. "I feel anger toward whichever employees decided to cut costs in an area where you can't take shortcuts."

Bermudez's older brother, Renato, a San Francisco firefighter, sat in seat 16F of Flight 261. On a tour this week of the wreckage, Bermudez searched for the window from which his brother may have peered as the plane went down.

"I know there wouldn't be a message there for me," he said, "but I just wanted to get a little closer to where he was a year ago."

Reporters on Wednesday were given their first glimpse of the wreckage.

About 85% of the aircraft is displayed nose-to-tail inside a 300-foot-long warehouse on a Port Hueneme naval base wharf.

Most of the fragments are about the size of car doors, but some parts are as big as garage doors. The strut assemblies are intact, as well as an 18-foot portion of the left wing and a 14-foot piece of the right wing, although they are bent and twisted.

One of the largest portions is a chunk of the horizontal stabilizer, and nearby is part of the tail assembly bearing the Alaska Airlines Eskimo. There are pieces of insulation, cargo doors, wooden cargo boxes and pieces of fuselage in the airline colors of green, white, blue and gray.

*

The jackscrew was not among the wreckage, nor were there seats. Investigators on hand would not say where the missing pieces are.

Some family members were more drawn to the crash site than they were to the fragments of metal in the Port Hueneme warehouse.

However, wind gusts as high as 45 mph and choppy water thwarted plans to ferry them out to the spot near Anacapa Island.

Jeff Christensen of Seattle, whose wife was on the plane, is a former flight attendant who carried his own dog tags whenever he flew.

"I wanted to go to the spot where the plane went down and drop them into the water," he said.

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