Ministry offered at crash memorial

BY PJ HELLER | OXNARD, CA | February 5, 2001


One year ago, the Rev. Dan Green stood on a dock at the naval base at Port Hueneme offering whatever spiritual help he could to the workers involved in the grim rescue and recovery efforts for Alaska Airlines Flight 261.

The plane, on a flight from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to San Francisco and Seattle, crashed into the Pacific Ocean on Jan. 31, 2000, killing all 88 people aboard.

For Green, the pastor at the First Assembly of God Church in Port Hueneme and a chaplain for three local public service agencies, the faces of the families and relatives of the victims who came here in the days immediately after the crash were simply a blur.

"During the whole event a year ago, my heart went out," said Green, who spent about two weeks after the crash offering spiritual care to

rescue and recovery workers. "I could see people as a blur as I watched a small part of a memorial service at Pepperdine (University) and

saw a few family members of the victims at ceremonies on the beach."

On the one-year anniversary of the crash, Green was among those in the faith-based community once again called upon to offer spiritual

care. This time, it was for the family and relatives of the victims of Flight 261 who gathered in Ventura County, CA, for memorial events Jan.

30-31.

This time, Green did get to see the faces of the people so personally affected by the tragedy. About 750 people from throughout the United

States and abroad attended the events.

"Out of this horrible, horrible incident, this extraordinary event, I get to take away something that is very ordinary," Green said. "And that is that there are really people -- faces, hands, arms, red hair, black hair, blonde hair, no hair -- that came here and not everybody, but some of them, were able to say thank you. I got to see their faces.

"I get to put faces to the people that I thought about when I was out helping recovery people deal with this critical incident," he said. "I get to take the complete picture -- of the body parts and the aircraft wreckage -- and I get to put a face to those that it affected so deeply."

For the memorial events, Green was a team leader for one of three SAIR -- Spiritual Air Incident Response -- teams. Each team was composed of five chaplains and was assigned to one of three hotels where family members were housed. Another 10 chaplains also assisted on a day-to-day basis.

In addition to the spiritual care groups, each family assistance center at each hotel was staffed by mental health professionals, nurses, and a

facilitator.

"It was a room where you could meander around," Green said. "You could talk to people. Many times you'd start talking with one person and the rest of family would come up. A 15-minute encounter would turn into 45 minutes or an hour."

At one point, Green found himself talking to nine people in the lobby of a hotel. Another time, a priest and nun accompanied 21 people into

a meditation room at one of the hotels and sat in there with them for two hours, listening as they talked about family members and about

the memorial services, he said.

Green said he and the other faith-based personnel were there more to listen than to talk. He described it as a "ministry of presence."

"Your presence was more important than your words," he explained.

At one event, Green looked out over a room filled with family, friends, and relatives of the 88 people killed when the jetliner plunged into

the ocean eight miles off the coast of Port Hueneme.

"I looked at that room and said, 'There are 750 people here. There must be thousands of others that those 88 people touched,' " he recalled.

Among the memorial events were boat trips out to the crash site, private burial and memorial services, viewing of the aircraft wreckage,

and the dedication of a stone memorial on the beach at the Point Mugu Naval Base.

Green said one of the most difficult moments came when the families viewed the aircraft wreckage, housed in a huge warehouse at the Port

Hueneme Naval Base.

Tens of thousands of tiny pieces of the aircraft were laid out on the floor, he said. The largest sections were the tail and the part of the wing.

"They (family members) had this concept that they would go in and see an airplane," he said. "What they went in and saw was just twisted

aluminum. It looked like if you ran over a tin can with a lawn mower.

"The starkness . . . That dismembered, twisted, mangled piece of wreckage that once represented a huge aircraft. It was their worst

nightmare literally staring them in the face," Green said. "So they would sit there and weep."

Green rejected the notion that the memorial events would bring closure to the families affected by the crash.

"There's no way I can close this," Green said. "I cannot bring closure. I don't think God can bring closure to these people."

Green said what he believes the spiritual care did was to help the families come to a resolution about the crash.

"They're resolved that they're going to get on with life," he said.

"They're resolved that they're not ever going to forget their loved one, they're very resolved on that. And they're also resolved that this will never happen again.

"I can't tell you how many people said, 'We don't want this to ever happen again. We don't want you to ever have to come out and do this

again.'

"The reality is it might happen again," Green said.


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