Flight 261 probe becomes criminal based on alleged maintenance practices

Posted: Sunday, March 19, 2000

SEATTLE (AP) -- What began months ago as an inquiry into aircraft maintenance practices at an Alaska Airlines facility in Oakland has now become a criminal investigation into the deadly crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, The Seattle Times reported Saturday.

No criminal wrongdoing has been established in connection with the Jan. 31 crash off the coast of California that killed 88 people, The Times said in a copyrighted story.

Citing three sources in two federal agencies, the newspaper said the FBI and investigators from the Department of Transportation have been questioning Alaska Airlines employees as part of an inquiry that has been under way for several weeks.

FBI spokeswomen Roberta Burroughs in Seattle and Debbie Weierman in Washington, D.C., would not confirm or deny the existence of any such investigation Saturday.

The U.S. Department of Transportation could not immediately be reached, and calls to the National Transportation Safety Board were not returned Saturday.

The Times said the FBI, which usually plays an advisory role to the NTSB, is conducting a separate, parallel investigation -- a course of action reserved for cases where there is evidence or suspicion of crime.

Alaska Airlines said it was not aware of a separate investigation by the FBI into the crash of Flight 261.

''The FBI has been involved in the investigation of Flight 261 since the beginning,'' Alaska Airlines spokesman Jack Evans said Saturday. ''Currently, we are unaware of any change in their role since the beginning. If there is a change in that role, we'll cooperate with them as we have been.''

The criminal investigation grew out of a 15-month-old inquiry into practices at Alaska's maintenance facility at Oakland, Calif., the Times said. In that inquiry, a grand jury in San Francisco is investigating whether supervisors signed for repairs that weren't done or that they weren't authorized to approve.

But the plane that crashed ''was not involved in the original request from the U.S. Attorney's Office for records related to aircraft,'' Evans said.

Earlier, the airline said it has put a top manager on leave while it investigates claims by 64 Seattle mechanics that they were ''pressured, threatened and intimidated'' to cut corners on repairs.

Alaska Airlines said it had notified federal prosecutors and the National Transportation Safety Board of the claims. It also said it would immediately ground any planes found to be potentially unsafe. No such action had been deemed necessary as of Saturday noon, Evans said.

The mechanics' complaints were contained in a letter delivered to the airline on Thursday and quoted by the Times in Friday editions.

A draft of the letter said workers were directed to do things ''specifically contradicting'' federal aviation regulations, and alleged they had been ''pressured, threatened and intimidated ... in the daily performance of our work.''

The airline and Federal Aviation Administration officials have begun interviewing the mechanics.

''We increased our oversight as soon as we found out about the letter,'' said FAA spokeswoman Rebecca Trexler in Washington, D.C, on Saturday.

NTSB Chairman Jim Hall said Friday that most major components of Flight 261's tail section have been recovered. He also said investigators had found no grease on a crucial portion of the jackscrew that helped control the movement of the jet's horizontal tail stabilizer, long a focus of the crash probe.

The Times reported that the mechanics' letter was triggered by concerns over a recent repair to the horizontal stabilizer and jackscrew assembly on an MD-80 jetliner. An airline spokesman could not confirm that report on Saturday.

FAA spokesman Mitch Barker said the agency was aware there had been recent ''debate'' at Alaska Airlines over a horizontal stabilizer repair. He said the plane was returned to service in proper condition.

Robert Falla, manager of the airline's Seattle maintenance base, was placed on administrative leave, the airline said. He could not be reached by telephone, but his lawyer predicted he would be exonerated.

''Robert Falla has never knowingly allowed any aircraft to go into service that was not airworthy or (that) failed any safety standard,'' said a statement from his lawyer, Scott Engelhard.

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