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Monday, January 31, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Guest columnist

The bitter taste lingers long after the tragic loss

Special to The Times

It has been five years since the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 on Jan. 31, 2000. That fateful day I learned, at the age of 38, that my vibrant and wonderful parents, Tom and Peggy Stockley, had died together in a terrifying crash into the Pacific Ocean and that my sister and I had in one instant became adult orphans.

They were only 63 and 62, respectively, had been married 40 years and were enjoying a rich life on an Eastlake houseboat, where they were the center of their community and the headquarters for our family dinners.

My father wrote his wine column for The Seattle Times often with his feet dangled in the lake and a laptop computer in his lap, with a glass of wine at his side. My mother strolled the docks in folk dresses from her many wine trips with my dad, taking care of the dock cats, chatting with the neighbors and working on the Floating Homes Association newsletter and other Eastlake projects. In the summer, she'd keep cool by jumping in the lake at least five times a day, and sipping a scotch and soda in between.

In one instant, they were here and life was beautiful. The next instant, they and 86 others on the plane were gone, and my sister and I were plunged into the chaotic world of airline crashes.

For several years after the crash, I kept fueled by a ceaseless supply of anger against the airline that propelled me forward in our wrongful-death lawsuit and gave me the adrenaline to organize the families and help establish a monument at the crash site along the Southern California coast.

After the sundial monument was built at Port Hueneme, I was able to pour energy into getting a memorial tile bench built in Seattle's Lynn Street Park. All the projects came into fruition, the lawsuit was settled, and we finally this past summer erected a monument at our parents' grave site.

Five years later, with all of these accomplishments, my parents are still gone.

I often get asked the question, "Did the airline settle with the families?"

My answer is always a dull, listless, "Yes, Alaska Airline's insurance company settled with us. But my parents are still gone."

The truth of the matter is that Alaska Airlines never once took responsibility for what really happened. Their former CEO, John Kelly, whose belt-tightening policies improved Alaska's stock value and led to dangerous cuts in the maintenance department, is still being bestowed with awards and kudos for what he did for Alaska Airlines.

The mechanic, John Liotine, who blew the whistle on the airline, and whose recommendation that the jackscrew be replaced on the crash plane was overruled, is now out of work, penniless, and essentially a ruined man.

Subsequent mechanics who have had the nerve to expose the airline's cavalier attitude toward safety and maintenance have lost their jobs and are dealing with their own private lawsuits against Alaska.

Five weeks ago, I gave birth to my first child, a girl named Margaret Daisy Frances. We named her after my mother, and she has her deep blue eyes and round cheeks.

Becoming a mother for the first time brings me closer to my parents, and it helps a little. But five years later, my parents are still not here. They cannot help me with my baby, they are not here to pour the wine and cook the dinners that bonded our family.

Yes, we settled with the airline. They have moved onwards and put the crash behind them. People continue to fly the airline, thinking that the crash was an isolated incident that would never happen again.

We continue to worry. We have witnessed their testimony against the families and met the brave few mechanics who have had the nerve to expose the truth.

The injustice of it all is the bitter taste that remains in my mouth after these five long years. My daughter will only know my parents as mythological figures, not as warm arms hugging her and loving her as grandparents do.

This is what I am left with now that the anger is past.

Paige Stockley Lerner is a cellist on the faculty at Cornish College of the Arts. Her parents, Tom and Peggy Stockley, were former Seattle Times employees. Peggy Stockley also worked for other news and civic organizations.

Copyright © 2005 The Seattle Times Company

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