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Emotions still palpable

Alaska Airlines flight’s crash into the Pacific Ocean claimed 88 lives, and its effects linger 10 years later

Families whose loved ones perished on Alaska Airlines Flight 261 a decade ago share stories and offer support to each other in Enumclaw, Wash., on Friday. The survivors, as they call themselves, have experienced highs and lows in the 10 years since the crash. Seattle Times (Mike Siegel Seattle Times)
Families whose loved ones perished on Alaska Airlines Flight 261 a decade ago share stories and offer support to each other in Enumclaw, Wash., on Friday. The survivors, as they call themselves, have experienced highs and lows in the 10 years since the crash. Seattle Times (Mike Siegel Seattle Times)
Christine Clarridge Seattle Times

SEATTLE – 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 prepared to mark Sunday’s 10-year anniversary of the crash that claimed all 88 passengers and crew, several agreed to talk about the crash, and the lingering effects of the tragedy that reverberated through the region.

Their grief was compounded by revelations that the crash could have been averted had Alaska Airlines been more vigilant in its maintenance of the plane.

“I am a person who has always taken the high road,” said Winston Ing, of Mercer Island, Wash., 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, a McDonnell Douglas MD-83, was traveling from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco and later to Seattle when it crashed into the Pacific Ocean off Southern California.

“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.

In the minutes before the crash, the 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 Airlines’ 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.

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 was at fault by failing to “properly oversee” the airline’s maintenance operations.

Because Alaska Airlines and Boeing, which had acquired McDonnell Douglas, agreed to accept 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.”

Earlier this month, some of the family members who planned Sunday’s memorial in Port Hueneme gathered in the Enumclaw home of Earlene Shaw, who lost her husband, Dan, to talk about their experiences after the crash.

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.

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,” 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 settlement with the airline.

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

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