Loved ones grieve after crash

BY P.J. HELLER | OXNARD, Calif. | February 1, 2000


An Alaska Airlines jetliner with 88 people on board crashed into the Pacific Ocean on Monday afternoon, minutes after the pilot reported a

mechanical problem and was diverting to Los Angeles International Airport to make an emergency landing.

Nine hours after Flight 261 went down into the chilly waters, there were no signs of survivors and hope dimmed with each passing hour that

anyone would be found alive. Ships from the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy and commercial fishing vessels, along with helicopters and fixed-wing

aircraft, scoured the sea throughout the night looking for wreckage and hoping to find survivors.

Officials said some bodies had been recovered as well as some debris from the plane. A team from the National Transportation Safety Board

(NTSB) was en route to the crash site from Washington, D.C., to investigate.

The MD-83 aircraft was flying from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco and then on to Seattle. It went down about 4:30 p.m. PST, about 20 miles northwest of Los Angeles along California's central coast. Weather at the time was clear.

Airline officials said the plane carried 83 passengers -- 30 were said to be employees of Alaska Airlines or its sister company, Horizon Air -- and a crew of five.

Clergy and grief counselors at both San Francisco International Airport and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport were on hand to comfort

friends and family of those on board the plane. Alaska Airlines also launched its comfort team -- employees specially trained to help others in a tragedy -- to try to assist those who gathered at the airport. Officials said such assistance could include making arrangements for them to travel to where the plane went down.

A temporary command post was set up at the Channel Islands U.S. Coast Guard Station. The Salvation Army set up a canteen offering coffee

and sandwiches to law enforcement personnel and media members who were at the site. The American Red Cross also was on the scene in

case it was needed.

Norman Patton, a captain with the Salvation Army in Oxnard, said his organization would offer counseling to both rescue workers and the

relatives or friends of the passengers on the plane.

"There may be some families who come here hoping for closure," Patton said.

At both San Francisco and Seattle-Tacoma international airports, people who had arrived to meet the flight were taken to a private room, away

from the glare of television lights.

"Our job is to just listen and try to help as much as possible," said Maynard Sargent, a Salvation Army captain who was among dozens of

counselors on hand to meet the grieving at Sea-Tac airport. "We will be here as long as we need to be."

It was not immediately known if a faith-based disaster response would be organized by Church of the Brethren Disaster Child Care, as it was

for the Egyptair 990 crash. DCC provides a team of specially trained childcare workers to help care for children in the wake of a tragedy such as an airline crash.

Lydia Walker, DCC coordinator, explained that the idea behind Disaster Child Care is "to provide something just for children that will take the load off the parents and the caseworkers but give the children something special that would be a time of quiet and healing and space that's their own where they could just be children."

The Egyptair 990 crash in which 217 people died was the first full response for the childcare team, which is organized by the Church of the Brethren through an agreement with the American Red Cross.

In Oxnard, Coast Guard officials who were heading up what they were still describing as a "search and recovery" effort late Monday said they would continue their efforts all night.

The plane went down in more than 300 feet of water between Anacapa Island and the mainland, officials said. The water temperature was

about 55 degrees at the time.

Shortly before the plane disappeared from radar screens, the crew radioed that it was having problems with the stabilizer trim and was turning back to Los Angeles to make an emergency landing.

Airline officials said late Monday night that they did not want to speculate on the cause of the crash. They said that determination would be made by the NTSB.


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