Flight 261 report offers little comfort for victims' families

Posted: Wednesday, December 11, 2002

SEATTLE (AP) -- Nearly three years after the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, those who lost loved ones say it comes as no surprise that federal investigators have blamed poor government oversight, inadequate maintenance -- and ultimately a lack of grease that caused one of the plane's tail components to fail.

''There's no relief at all,'' said Bob Stookey of Mount Vernon, whose 25-year-old daughter, Sheri Christensen, was among the 88 killed in the crash off the coast of Port Hueneme, Calif., on Jan. 31, 2000. ''All it does is confirm our reasons for being angry at this whole thing.''

On Tuesday, federal safety investigators said lax oversight by the Federal Aviation Administration and shoddy maintenance practices by Seattle-based Alaska Airlines contributed to the crash.

The National Transportation Safety Board said insufficient lubrication led to excessive wear and the eventual failure of the jet's jackscrew, a tail component that helps move the plane's stabilizer and sets the angle of flight.

The NTSB rejected the airline's argument that the kind of grease recommended by Boeing Co. was at fault.

''I feel in this instance FAA failed miserably,'' NTSB Chairwoman Carol Carmody said.

FAA spokesman Les Dorr said the NTSB ''correctly focused'' on lack of lubrication as the primary cause. And he defended the FAA's oversight, saying the intervals between maintenance checks were well within industry norms.

Victims' relatives who attended the NTSB meeting in Washington, D.C., cheered when the board voted on the probable cause of the crash.

Paige Stockley of Seattle, whose mother and father, Peggy and Tom Stockley, died in the crash, carried a sign reading, ''Corporate Greed Killed 88 People.''

''It was not an accident. It was a predicted event,'' Stockley said. ''Our relatives did not have to die.''

Alaska Airlines issued a statement expressing ''profound sorrow'' for the crash and noting steps it has taken to improve maintenance.

''During the past three years, Alaska's only goal has been to discover what happened, why it happened and how to make sure it never happens again,'' the statement read.

Flight 261 took off from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, with scheduled stops in San Francisco and Seattle. The pilots were planning to make an emergency landing in Los Angeles after reporting mechanical problems, when the stabilizer broke off. Crash investigators later concluded the jackscrew mechanism jammed soon after takeoff.

Alaska Airlines has suggested the jackscrew failed because of extreme wear caused by a type of grease recommended by Boeing and because of design flaws that caused the threads on the nut of the jackscrew assembly to fail.

Boeing spokeswoman Liz Verdier said Tuesday the company needs more time to review the report, but noted that the industry is committed to improving safety.

''The way the industry works is if something happens ... the industry focuses on how to find a cause and how to make sure it doesn't happen again,'' Verdier said. ''It does not focus on blame. It does not do any good. It does not bring those people back.''

Margaret Branson of Seward, Alaska, lost her 39-year-old son, Malcolm Branson, and said that while following the investigation has helped her cope, it has not done much to ease the pain.

''I don't think it's so much anger,'' said Branson, 75. ''It's just a feeling of loss, of real sorrow and missing his presence.''


On the Net:

Alaska Airlines: http://www.alaskaair.com/

NTSB: http://www.ntsb.gov/

FAA: http://www2.faa.gov/

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