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Tuesday, February 1, 2000 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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As families throughout the region grieve for the 88 people lost when Alaska Flight 261 went down off California, Navy crews say they have heard electronic "pings" that may be from the flight recorders aboard the jet.

If the pings are from the recorders on the plane, which carried 47 passengers bound for Seattle, they would be "a prime lead and a prime finding," Coast Guard Vice Adm. Tom Collins said at a news conference today.

When the plane went down around 4:30 p.m. yesterday in the worst West Coast air disaster in 22 years, it took with it a microcosm of the Seattle area's population: pastors, school kids, musicians, Microsoft workers and numerous Alaska Airlines employees, their friends and families.

A flotilla of rescue vessels, including Coast Guard cutters, planes and a government tugboat, continued to search the 15-square-mile area where debris has been found.

Search-and-rescue crews have recovered the bodies of two women, one man and an infant from the 58-degree water, Collins said.

No survivors had been found.

Enough crash debris to fill 12 small boxes was been collected and includes pieces of the plane's fuselage, frame and seat cushions.

"This is a sad time, a horrific tragedy," Collins told reporters at the news conference near Oxnard, Calif.

Search vessels have covered the debris area more than 3 dozen times since the plane went down in water that is as deep as 700 feet, the Coast Guard said.

"It's like black ink," Coast Guard Capt. George Wright, the on-scene commander for the search, said of the water in the search area.

The MD-83 jet went into the water 40 miles north of Los Angeles yesterday afternoon.

`So much unreality'

News of the accident sparked a rush of family and friends to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, where they were ushered into a private room with grief counselors and chaplains.

Some came to terms with what happened almost immediately. Others held out hope that a loved one was delayed, mis-routed or vacationing another day.

"At this stage, there's still so much unreality. They can't grasp more than a few things at a time, and they can't grasp that their loved one is dead," said a volunteer chaplain, the Rev. Thomas Williams, from St. James Cathedral.

Among the passengers on the plane were Seattle Times wine columnist Tom Stockley and his wife, Peggy. Stockley, also a former editor at the newspaper, and his wife lived on a houseboat in Seattle.

There were 83 passengers and 5 crew members on board Alaska Airlines Flight 261, which left Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, yesterday at 1:30 p.m. Seattle time. The plane went down en route to San Francisco, a stopover on the way to Seattle.

Three passengers were Alaska Airlines employees and four worked for Horizon Air, which is owned by Alaska Air Group, the parent company of Alaska Airlines. The seven flew on a reduced rate, a perk offered to airline employees when space is available. Twenty-three other non-revenue travelers are believed to be either relatives or friends of the employees or crew-members.

The Los Angeles-based pilot, Capt. Ted Thompson, 53, joined Alaska Airlines in 1982. First Officer William Tansky, 57, also based in Los Angeles, was hired in 1985. Both had flown military transport aircraft.

The flight attendants were Allison Shanks, 33, Craig Pulanco, 30, and Kristin Mills, 26. All were based in Seattle.

Alaska Airlines officials said 47 passengers were headed to Seattle; 32 for San Francisco, three for Eugene, Ore., and one for Fairbanks, Alaska.

At the time of the crash, Flight 261 was being diverted to an emergency landing at Los Angeles International Airport after the pilot reported stabilizer trim problems.

The crew had reported no problems when they checked in with Los Angeles Air Traffic Control Center at about 4 p.m., according to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). A short time later, the pilots radioed that the plane was descending and they were losing control.

Flight controllers lost radio contact with the crew at 4:36 p.m.

The aircraft's stabilizer trim is used to help control the pitch - or the up-and-down motion - of the airplane. The stabilizer trim moves the plane's vertical tail controls up or down in order to make adjustments for slight changes in the plane's weight distribution or to adjust for external forces such as turbulence.

Airline spokesman Jack Evans deferred all questions about the cause of the crash to the NTSB, but added that the aircraft has no history of stabilizer-trim problems.

Alaska Airlines, which serves more than three dozen cities in the West, has an excellent safety record. Its only two fatal events occurred in Alaska in the 1970s.

The airplane, an MD-83, was built in 1992. The last routine inspection was performed in Seattle on Sunday. Evans said crews fixed two coffeemakers, a light bulb and a faulty toilet. The plane had logged 26,584 hours of flight time, making it relatively new. Alaska Airlines operates 35 MD-80 style planes in its fleet of 89 jets. The MD-83 is one of five variations of the MD-80 series of aircraft.

"This is probably one of the most tragic experiences the airline has experienced and I have experienced. I think we're all in shock," said Evans.

The NTSB has 10 people investigating the crash, along with the FAA and a salvage expert, NTSB board member John Hammerschmidt said.

A national park ranger working on an uninhabited park island near Ventura saw the airliner crash, said Carol Spears, spokeswoman for the Channel Islands National Park.

"He witnessed the plane go into the ocean at an angle, nose first," Spears said.

East Anacapa Island is one of five islands in a chain that extends into the Pacific Ocean west of Oxnard.

The dispatcher logged the time of the ranger's call at 4:25 p.m., Spears said.

Hope diminishes

Throughout yesterday evening, Sea-Tac Airport filled with relatives and friends bracing themselves against the worst news imaginable. Hope was a shield tightly held.

"It was my son and his fiancee," choked out Bonnie Fuller of Graham, Pierce County, there with other family members who held one another's arms. The couple had gone to Puerto Vallarta to celebrate their engagement.

"Maybe he missed the plane," she said, her voice rising. Her son is always late, she said, always missing connections.

Another mother said her son might not have been on the plane. "I'm not sure. On a pass, he was on a pass," she said, repeating the words like a mantra.

Keith Van Doren had the chance to go on a weekend trip to Puerto Vallarta with his best friend, but business kept him home.

He found out about the plane crash at 5 p.m. after turning on the television. He made several phone calls to his friend's Redmond home and cell phone and received no answer.

Van Doren rushed to the airport when he heard the news of the crash and went into the airport auditorium where counselors and ministers were helping family members. Van Doren said he wrote the names of his friends on a list and the airline confirmed three of the four were on the flight.

"I feel lucky to be alive, but I have a heavy heart," he said. "They were very, very good people."

Van Doren declined to reveal their names, but said his friend was about 32 years old and had just graduated from Washington State University with a civil-engineering degree.

His friend's younger brother, who was about 27, was an Alaska Airlines flight attendant who was vacationing in Puerto Vallarta with their parents.

In stark contrast to those connected to Flight 261 were the mothers and fathers of young gymnasts returning from a meet in Van Nuys, California.

The plane the youngsters were on originated in Puerto Vallarta and had been scheduled to arrive near the time that Flight 261 was to arrive.

So when the parents heard that a flight from Puerto Vallarta had been lost, many went into full alert. Martin Chan of Seattle got a call from his father-in-law asking if he knew what flight his two girls, 10 and 12, were on.

"My heart just fell," said Susan Chan, who heard the news on the radio and rushed home to check the number of her daughters' flight.

At the airport, they finally started to relax, clustering around the screen and smiling. As it turned out, all 30 or so kids were on Flight 237 from Los Angeles, and worried looks dissolved into tears of relief.

Tammy Moore clutched her daughter Savannah, 14, another gymnast. "I feel relieved, but guilty," she said. "I know someone's not going to get their loved ones back."

Rescue efforts were being staged out of the Coast Guard station at Port Hueneme, north of the Point Mugu Naval Air Base.

Passengers who intended to board Flight 261 in San Francisco were rerouted to another flight. They arrived at Sea-Tac at midnight.

Records from the NTSB show that Flight 261 was the first major commercial-airline accident of a flight originating in or heading to Seattle since the agency's database on such incidents was created in 1983. It was the worst West Coast air disaster since a plane went down on its approach to San Diego airport in 1978, killing 144.

In 1990, a passenger was nearly sucked out of a Horizon Air plane 14,000 feet over Olympia when a window blew out during a flight from Portland to Seattle.

Seattle-based Alaska Airlines has two fatal events since 1970. On Sept. 4, 1971, an Alaska Airlines Boeing 727 flew into a mountain near Juneau. All aboard - seven crew members and 104 passengers - were killed.

Five years later, on April 5, 1976, an Alaska Boeing 727 overran the runway after landing in Ketchikan. One passenger died of a heart attack.

The NTSB, the government agency charged with investigating airline accidents, dispatched a team of investigators from Washington, D.C., early this morning. It was headed by the NTSB's Hammerschmidt.

The so-called "go team" dispatched to all major accidents includes specialists from a variety of disciplines: power plants, engineering, survival factors, human-performance factors and air traffic control. Because it bought McDonnell Douglas, maker of the MD-80, in 1997, Boeing will join the investigation.

The team will set up near the crash site, most likely at a hotel in nearby Oxnard.

The NTSB also will send a family-affairs team to help survivors and victims' families with grief counseling and other problems. Family teams were established after the board came under criticism for its handling of the families of the victims of TWA Flight 800, which crashed off Long Island, N.Y., in 1996.

NTSB investigators act as detectives to try to figure out what happened. They interview witnesses and review radar tracks, radio transmissions and the two so-called "black boxes" that record flight data and conversations from the cockpit.

The boxes are actually bright orange and are built to survive the massive impact of a plane crash.

The flight data from the boxes are plugged into computers and allow the NTSB to simulate the last minutes of the flight. A transcript of the cockpit conversation is generally released at a later date.

The investigation of a major airplane crash can take months or even years, and it is possible the NTSB will never be able to unequivocally say why a plane went down.

Seattle Times staff reporters Alex Fryer, Mike Carter, Susan Gilmore, Keiko Morris, Dave Birkland, Carol M. Ostrom, Eric Pryne, Susan Kelleher, David Postman, and Eric Nalder contributed to this report.

------------------------------------------------------------------ The crash site of Flight 261

Location: About 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles International Airport and about 10 miles southwest of Oxnard in Ventura County.

Water depth: 300 to 750 feet, with several offshore shelves accounting for the various depths.

Water temperature: About 58 degrees.

Weather conditions: Clear skies.

Ocean conditions: Swells of 10 to 12 feet.

Copyright (c) 2000 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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