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No Charges to Be Filed Over the Crash of Alaska Flight 261

The U.S. attorney' s office finds insufficient evidence for criminal prosecution in the January 2000 disaster off Ventura County's coast.

August 13, 2003|Eric Malnic | Times Staff Writer

The federal government has decided not to file criminal charges against Alaska Airlines over the crash of Flight 261 off the Ventura County coast in January 2000.

The U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco said it had concluded last month that there was insufficient evidence to warrant federal prosecution, and the case had been closed.

"That decision really bothers me," said Johnson Sanchez of Seattle, whose 27-year-old daughter, Colleen Whorley, died in the crash. "I think they should have charged some of those people. A lot of people wanted to keep those planes flying when they shouldn't have. Maybe they were thinking too much about profit."

Federal prosecutors declined to comment or elaborate on the decision to close the case, as did representatives of the airline and of Boeing Co., which took over the operations of McDonnell Douglas, manufacturer of the downed plane.

Officials said that federal charges are rarely filed in connection with airline accidents and that, initially, the federal investigation of Alaska had nothing to do with any crash. The probe began in the late 1990s, when a federal grand jury began looking into allegations of improper maintenance procedures at the airline's facility in Oakland.

Then, on Jan. 31, 2000, Flight 261 crashed en route from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco, killing all 88 people on board. In the weeks that followed, the Oakland investigation was expanded to include the crash.

In December 2001, the U.S. attorney's office said that maintenance activities at Oakland did not warrant further investigation or the filing of criminal charges. The part of the probe pertaining to Flight 261 was put on hold, pending a National Transportation Safety Board report on the probable cause of the crash.

The NTSB issued its report in December 2002, saying the MD-83 jet had gone into an uncontrollable dive after the failure of its horizontal stabilizer, the wing-like portion of the tail that controls the up-and-down pitch of the nose.

The stabilizer problem was blamed on the failure of a key component, called a jackscrew assembly. The jackscrew is a large, threaded bolt that raises and lowers the leading edge of the stabilizer.

The NTSB said the jackscrew had not been lubricated properly. That caused the stripping of threads from a nut that held the jackscrew bolt, throwing the plane out of control and causing the crash, the board said.

The NTSB cited widespread maintenance deficiencies at Alaska Airlines and lax oversight of those operations by the Federal Aviation Administration.

American Airlines, which flies dozens of MD-80 series aircraft, requires frequent lubrication of jackscrews and has never had problems with them, the NTSB said.

But Alaska had sought -- and the FAA had approved -- less frequent lubrication of the jackscrews in its planes. Alaska also had obtained FAA approval for longer intervals between jackscrew inspections.

Since the crash, Alaska, which farms out about 79% of its maintenance work to contractors, has increased the frequency of the lubrications and inspections.

About three months after the NTSB issued its report, the U.S. attorney's office announced it was reopening its criminal investigation of the crash. The decision to drop the case was disclosed Monday in a quarterly filing to the Securities and Exchange Commission by Alaska Air Group Inc.

The airline and Boeing announced two months ago that they wouldn't contest their liability in the crash, and all but one of the 88 wrongful-death suits filed against them have been settled for amounts ranging from a few million dollars to about $20 million, lawyers for relatives of the victims said.

Under international treaty, airlines like Alaska are not subject to punitive damages, and in June a judge exempted Boeing from such damages. But that still left the airline and the manufacturer subject to damages for negligence and product liability.

The one remaining lawsuit, brought by the family of passenger Joan Smith, is pending before a federal court in Los Angeles.


Associated Press contributed to this report.

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