Families meet for crash anniversary

Hundreds expected for memorial of Alaska Airlines disaster

Posted: Sunday, January 28, 2001

LOS ANGELES -- A year has passed since Alaska Airlines Flight 261 suddenly spiraled out of control and smashed into the Pacific Ocean, but pain and anger remain for families of the 88 people aboard who were killed.

The victims of the Jan. 31 disaster in the waters off Point Mugu will be remembered in memorial events Tuesday and Wednesday that are expected to draw nearly 800 relatives and friends.

Fourteen members of the Ost family will travel from across the country to attend services paid for by Seattle-based Alaska Airlines and to view wreckage of the plane stored at the Navy base at Port Hueneme, northwest of Los Angles.

They'll remember Robert Ost, his wife, Ileana, and their 4-month-old daughter, Emily, who died in the crash along with Ost's mother, Jean Permison, and her companion, Charles Russell. The five were returning from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, to celebrate Permison's 73rd birthday when the crash occurred.

"The first month was really difficult," said Fred Ost, 48, of Skokie, Ill., who is a cousin of Robert Ost. "Trying to work at my job was difficult, I was getting choked up frequently. ... It took time and slowly I'm getting over it and life goes on."

On the Net:

Alaska Airlines: http://www.alaska-air.com/

National Transportation Safety Board: http://www.ntsb.gov

Robert Ost, a 15-year veteran of the South San Francisco Fire Department, and his family will be remembered privately by his 81-year-old father, Arthur Ost, of San Mateo, Calif., who won't attend the memorial events.

"I will not go and be a pawn of Alaska Airlines," Arthur Ost said. "I know they're doing it purely for public relations."

Arthur Ost said he'll talk by phone to his daughter, Janis, who will attend the ceremonies, and grieve in private when the anniversary arrives.

"I'll just think about it and mourn the death of my son and hope that someday we'll punish Alaska Airlines or their insurance companies," he said "My own personal wish is that the CEO of Alaska Airlines, John Kelly, would personally pay for it by going to prison. It was under his watch that these vile things were done to save money by putting up these airplanes. That's my wish."

The twin-engine MD-83 was bound for San Francisco and Seattle when it fell out of the sky eight miles off Ventura County, near Anacapa Island.

A ranger on the island and pilots of other planes saw the jet go down. Boats set out from the mainland and their crews searched in rough seas as darkness fell, but there were no survivors. Eventually, wreckage would be pulled up from the ocean floor.

The anniversary comes as the National Transportation Safety Board continues its investigation. The agency held fact-findings hearings in December and is expected to release a final report with a probable cause for the accident in the next few months, NTSB spokesman Terry Williams said.

The crash has spawned many lawsuits family members against Alaska Airlines; plane manufacturer McDonnell Douglas and its new owner, Boeing Co.; and companies that played a role in manufacturing and maintaining the jet's jackscrew, a key part of the MD-83's horizontal stabilizer that is suspected of causing the crash.

A federal grand jury in San Francisco also has been investigating the airline's maintenance operations at its Oakland facility since 1998.

The grand jury and NTSB investigators have been examining maintenance records of the downed aircraft's jackscrew mechanism, which controls the angle of the horizontal stabilizer on the aircraft's tail. The jackscrew's threads were found to be stripped.

The NTSB also is reviewing the types of grease used on the jackscrew assembly to determine if two lubricants are incompatible if mixed and whether the grease used on the aircraft causes corrosion.

Alaska officials have denied any wrongdoing and maintain that repeated tests showed the wear was insufficient to require replacement of the jackscrew assembly, which costs $30,000 to $70,000.

The crash occurred after the pilots reported an apparent jam in the mechanism, which lifts or lowers the plane's nose in flight. Pilot Ted Thompson and co-pilot William Tansky wrestled with the problem for more than 30 minutes before the aircraft suddenly plunged, upside-down, from 17,900 feet.

"Ah, here we go," Thompson said a second before the cockpit voice recorder stopped at 4:20 p.m.

The aircraft's harrowing descent is the basis for some of the punitive damages being sought by relatives, said Frank Pitre, a Burlingame lawyer representing the family of Karl Karlsson, 51, and his wife, Carol, 42, who were killed.

One issue that needs to be determined is whether family members can recover punitive damages for "pre-impact emotional distress" suffered by the passengers, Pitre said.

International treaties limit damages to $140,000 per passenger, but lawyers are arguing that compensatory and punitive damages apply because the airline did not take reasonable measures to prevent the crash. If so, liability could reach into the millions of dollars.

U.S. District Judge Charles Legge in San Francisco has consolidated about three-dozen lawsuits and has scheduled a hearing for March 7 to determine the scope of claims.

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