Jul/Aug 2012 Nonfiction

On the Twelfth Anniversary of the Crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261

by David Ewald

I'm sitting on concrete. It's not cold. The sun is warming the right side of my face and neck. My back is against a short wall. Over the wall, in the distance to my right, the unblemished Pacific Ocean shines the sun's reflection, and to the right of that, in the corner of my line of sight, the Port Hueneme Pier juts out from the shore. It is 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 2, 2012.

Sand flies land on my neck and crawl up my nose. I snort them out, wave them away. Concentrate. In front of me a series of small plaques rings a short dais. On each plaque is a name followed underneath by an age or a date of birth, followed underneath that by a hometown.

MAY 6, 1979


MAY 19, 1980

"AJ" MARCH 8, 1980

AGE 20

AGE 19

AGE 20

I didn't ask for these names to be placed together. I had expected the young, the nineteen- and twenty-year-olds, to be interspersed with the older passengers, and for the list to continue unbounded. That more names aren't listed here causes a shudder of guilt: what I'm looking at may not always last, but what is on the screen will.

A plane passes overhead. It's an old plane, vintage World War II perhaps, destined to land at the Camarillo Airport.

A man on his way to the shoreline passes by, carrying a surfboard.

No one is here then but me, and I again think of these things—the plane, the man, the plaques—as impermanent, gone in even thirty years. The details on some of the plaques have faded. Already I'm unable to read everything about everyone.

A flower—a single white rose—has been placed above each plaque, and a transparent plastic cup filled with sand topped inside by a white candle, the wick wax as well, stands beside each rose. Only a few plaques have something additional above, a pot or bunch of flowers in those instances. Otherwise the look is uniform.

Past the plaques and their flowers and candles are the large Roman numerals made of what looks to be metal. The numbers correspond to positions on a clock. The dais is a clock, and at its center is the hand, a large point rising diagonally above the dais, pointing inland. I look up to see half a moon in the clear sky, to the left of the hand's tip. Down again: three dolphins spring from the hand's base. Large pots of flowers have been placed here as well.

Two days earlier I was standing underneath a palm tree on the path leading to this memorial. I had a clear view of the crowd that had gathered into a circle I did not feel right entering. I had thought about it, but decided against it when I arrived. The palm tree—a few yards away—was as far as I'd go.

The crowd was large and stood within the boundary set off by the short concrete wall I am now leaning against. There were women in wheelchairs, small children running around, and many people in hats, sunglasses and jackets. It was colder then than it is now, but the calmness of that day has not changed.

I'd arrived just before 4:22 p.m. I watched. There was very little talking. As 4:22 p.m. neared the crowd seemed to tense, to tighten. Then it happened. At 4:22 there was a gasp, murmurs—but this might only have been what I wanted to hear, what I wanted to believe. I wanted to believe they gasped, murmured, cried. I wanted to believe I could join their circle when I knew I could not. I would not have been accepted. There would have been questions. They would have asked, Who do you know? Who did you know? How are you related? My truth: I know all of them. I am a relation to them all.

The memorial is so close to where I live, and yet that day at 4:22 p.m. I felt more removed from it than ever. Was I safer, more knowledgeable, more focused in front of the screen? I want them to know I'm thinking of them. I want them to know I care. I always had the capacity to care, but now I have the means to show that caring.

When it happened—when Alaska Airlines Flight 261 fell out of the sky and into the ocean eight miles off the California coast, I did not think of caring. I was twenty-one years old then, a student at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and I remember hearing of the crash and thinking of how close I'd been to it. I followed the reports for a short while then forgot about it until months later when the news started detailing the flight's final moments.

I would watch, a bowl of cereal in my lap, as the screen depicted the computerized mock-up of the plane's fall. I would watch again and again because CNN Headline News recycled the same story every half hour, and I had the time to stay through. Eventually, I went to class.

I feared flying that year. It was really the first time I'd felt a true fear of flying. I knew of plane crashes before then, of course; the much publicized crash of EgyptAir Flight 990 had occurred less than a year earlier. But to my knowledge the EgyptAir flight did not carry so many young people, people my age, West Coast residents, and it certainly had not gone down so close to where I lived.

The path I could have taken to be on Flight 261. Less than a year before the crash, in the spring of 1999, I was a sophomore at UCSB dating a freshman at Berkeley. I had thought of transferring to be with her, and if I had been more of a boyfriend I would have. Together, students at Berkeley, we might have done what Meghann Hall and Ryan Sparks did: gone on a brief vacation to Mexico, to Puerto Vallarta. For once, I would have taken the initiative and suggested it. A good idea. No, a great one. We could have been on Flight 261 as it went down fewer than four hundred miles south of our home destination.

All they had to do was make it to San Francisco. All they really had to do was turn east and land at LAX.

I tell myself it's not so simple. They did not die on July 9, 1982 in the crash of Pan Am Flight 759. They did not die on August 31, 1986 in the crash of Aeromexico Flight 498, nor did they die on March 3, 1991 in the crash of United Airlines Flight 585, nor the crash of American Eagle Flight 4184 on October 31, 1994 nor the crash of TWA Flight 800 on July 17, 1996 nor the crash of Comair Flight 3272 on January 9, 1997. They died at the dawn of the 21st century, and their names have been used by Internet scam artists and spammers. An untrue rumor persists that a pastor's wife led the passengers in prayer moments before Flight 261 overturned and fell.

Now that I'm here, now that I'm writing, it may be impossible to capture everything that should be captured. This may be my greatest fear: the inability to actually live the information so readily available to me.

A woman approaches. I stop writing and watch her. She wears sunglasses and a University of Arizona sweatshirt. She takes a few moments with the memorial then turns to me. "What's this for?" she asks.

"It was a plane crash," I say.

The woman expresses mild astonishment at the fact and concern over my presence. I give her the date and she tells me about the flowers that have been placed on the shoreline. She makes a connection. We talk only a bit longer. She asks if I knew anyone. I say no, but I was young then, around the same age of several of the passengers, and lived close by.

Maybe next year I'll join the circle. Next year it'll play out the way it played out in my mind.

Another connection: this one to the memorial sundial. In early 2000, a month or two after the crash, I drove north from Goleta toward Lompoc to interview Ben Bottoms, an actor whose father, Bud Bottoms, would create the memorial sundial. I think of Bud and Ben's own loss—that of Sam Bottoms, son to Bud and brother to Ben, who died of a brain tumor in 2008.

I try to recall the song that was playing on the radio as I drove to meet Ben in early 2000. I don't believe it sounded so different than the song playing on the radio as I drove to the memorial this afternoon.

It's just about time. My cell phone displays the time as 4:20. I stand up, walk around the dais. The sun is strong in its descent. For a moment I pause to stare out at the ocean. No one is in it or on the beach. I can't see the flowers; they must be there.

I come to stand in front of the Roman numeral IV. Just to the left of that number is a raised heart made of the same material as the plaques. It reads "January 31, 2000 4:22 pm", and the shadow passes over.


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