In Memory: The Crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261

The Seattle Times
February 6, 2000
By Alex Tizon

It is our feeble response to the swoosh of so many souls departing at once. The list. We begin there, compiling the most basic facts first. The list had names like Bob and Carol and David and Patty. Most of us did not know them personally, but we sort of knew who they were. The passengers of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 were like most of us. People with jobs, with problems and stories to tell.

Their faces even seem familiar. We might have passed them on the jogging path around Green Lake or in the cereal aisle of the Queen Anne Safeway. We might have raced our cars along the narrow lanes of the Aurora Bridge, might have dipped calamari a table away at Ray’s Boathouse one half-moon night at Shilshole Bay.

We might have moaned over the same Seahawk loss, screeched at the same Griffey home run. Our kids might have slid down the same lumpy slide at Enchanted Village. Our dogs may have sniffed each other at Marymoor Park. They were our neighbors, our co-workers. They were our brethren in this mossy nest, drawn here and hypnotized by the same smell of mountain, forest and sea. They probably grumbled about the rain. They leafed through magazines and, like us, took pause at pictures of sunny places.

They went to one such place, Puerto Vallarta, and did not come back. Just like that. And now friends and families must come to grips with the permanence of “never” like they never have before. It must come in pieces, like debris floating to the bottom of the ocean. Alaska Airlines Flight 261. No survivors. Entire families perished. Eighty-eight lives gone in a flash. Eighty-eight ragged holes left in communities up and down the West Coast, 47 of them here in Washington.

Sometimes the awfulness can be so large that a list is the only thing we can muster in the face of it. Maya Lin, the architect who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., understood this. In this vein, we feebly compiled lists of victims’ names, under which we put lists of accomplishments, then lists of dreams that will never happen. A list can be poetic if we read it with the understanding that each name represents a life of unimaginable depth.

They had names like Meghann, Rodrigo, Rachel and John. They ran businesses, they ran marathons, they probably ran a red light or two. They ran from one end of the playground to the other. Two of the passengers, though, were not old enough to walk, 4-month old Emily Ost of San Bruno, Calif., and 6-month old Spencer Clemetson of Seattle. They were just waking up to the world. Their running was all ahead of them.

Many were in their mid-50s and 60s, retirees and soon-to-be retirees who had already planted a footprint on the earth. People with a handful of careers under their belts. Couples who had been married for two, three, four decades and counting. The oldest passenger, John Cuthbertson of Danville, Calif., was right at 70. Most of his running was probably behind him, and yet he drove a new Corvette convertible, obviously a man with plenty of rubber left to burn.

Many others were in that middle group, from age 20 to 50, still in the heat of the race, in the full stride of their lives, or on the verge of it. Life was about getting and striving and aspiring, making a name, finding a love, starting a family. Moving toward some bright thing ahead. Colleen Whorley and Monte Donaldson, both of Seattle, planned to marry in September. They were to travel to Ireland and Indonesia for their honeymoon. She’d just gotten a promotion at Microsoft where she worked as an art director. He was just starting work on a short independent film.

Abigail Busche was starting a new job as a software designer. Avinesh Amit Deo was starting a new position at a place called All Pro Power Washing in Ballard, his first career. Three friends and recent graduates of Enumclaw High School were just starting to explore what was out there in the world.

A plane crash is a spectacular interruption of lives. A sudden stoppage of multiple works in progress. One couple talked of opening a school in Mexico. Another couple, of starting a new insurance agency; another, a chain of restaurants. One woman was working toward a master’s in art therapy; another was studying to be a personal trainer. Many, undoubtedly, were working toward private goals that none of us will ever know about, nor should know about.

They had names like Thelma and Brad, Nina and Miles, with quirks and dreams and secrets and annoying habits. They carried fears, both real and imagined. They had extracurricular glories that had nothing to do with public life. They collected rocks, bought guitars never played, worried over fortune-cookie omens, cranked up the music down Interstate 5 and rocked out in the driver’s seat.

“Sloppy, raggedy-assed old life. I love it. I never want to die,” said poet Dennis Trudell.

We have lost 47 of our own this past week, people who probably knew that particular sensation of never wanting to die. We lost them to something raggedy and terrible. They were in a flying, hollow tube, a speck in the sky. The ocean swallowed them, and something of the sound of waves might be the only appropriate eulogy. Maybe we can only acquiesce to its mystery. We can carry on the projects of the departed. We can recall their names now and then, tell their stories. We can say farewell in our own private ways. Short of any of these, we can also just look at their faces for awhile, one after the other.