As the day gets closer, Paige Stockley feels as if she is in a state of high alert.
“A feeling of dread,” is how she described it. “Of being ready. Of being prepared.”
For what, Stockley isn’t sure. There are so many emotions attached to Jan. 31, the date — 20 years ago now — that Alaska Airlines Flight 261 plunged into the Pacific Ocean, killing 88 people, including her parents, Tom and Peggy Stockley.
The plane was traveling from Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, headed to San Francisco and later Seattle when it went down off the coast of Southern California, between Port Hueneme and Anacapa Island.
The impact of the tragedy was felt all over the region, but especially in Seattle, where 50 of the passengers were returning home from vacations. Husbands and wives died together. Siblings. Neighbors. College friends. And colleagues: At least 35 of the 88 passengers were connected to Alaska Airlines or its sister airline, Horizon Air. Tom Stockley was The Seattle Times’ wine critic.
The impact of the crash was felt in schools and churches, neighborhoods and friend circles, and created a community all its own.
Paige Stockley, who was 38 at the time, will join that community in California on Friday, when she will participate in a ceremony marking the anniversary of the crash. It will be held on the beach that overlooks the crash site, where a monument featuring a bronze sundial and dolphins —designed by Santa Barbara artist Bud Bottoms — was placed in 2003.
Stockley will play the cello with a string quartet when it performs “The Rose” by Ola Gjeilo accompanied by the California State University Channel Islands Choir. The choir will then be joined by students from Hueneme High School in Oxnard to sing two more songs.
And Los Angeles-based guitarist Scott Wolf will play Erik Satie’s “Gymnopedie No. 1,” a piece “close to the heart” of John Liotine, a former Alaska Airlines mechanic who became a whistleblower when he notified the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that his supervisors were approving maintenance records that indicated work had been completed on the doomed plane, when it had not.
The National Transportation Safety Board found that the MD-83’s jackscrew, which helps control a plane’s angle of flight, failed because it had not been adequately lubricated, causing the part to fail and send the plane into a dive. The board also found that the FAA had allowed Alaska to engage in risky maintenance practices.
“There are going to be thousands of people there, and I am planning the music, which is really exciting,” Stockley said of the memorial event. “But I am also trying to focus on the loss, the reason we’re there.
“It’s as if time stopped for all of us,” Stockley explained. “When the families get together, it’s a great sense of relief to be with people who understand that. A lot of people can’t believe it has been 20 years. And yet, the people who know, know.”
They include Claire Barnett, who lost her two daughters, Coriander and Blake, 8 and 6; as well as her former husband, David Clemetson; his wife, Carolyn; her 6-year-old son, Miles; and their 6-month-old son, Spencer.
In an annual note sent to family and friends, Barnett wrote: “It feels undeniably real to me that time stopped on January 31, 2000, that it has just been one long long day since then. And yet, the calendar tells me that it has been twenty years.
“… It is harder, each year, to navigate the coexistence of the world where everyone ages, and the world where they all stand still.”
As she does every year, Barnett will host a gathering at her Seattle home, where she will place 88 handmade pillar candles — hand-painted with the name of someone who was on the plane. When the candle is lit, that name is said out loud.
In addition to attending the memorial in California, Stockley is marking the anniversary by raising funds for the installation of two bronze dolphins made from the same molds Bottoms (who died last year) created for the sundial. They will be installed outside the terminal at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.
There are already several memorials to the victims of Flight 261 in the region: A bench in an Enumclaw sports field; a playground on Queen Anne named for Rachel Pearson, a 6-year-old who died with her family; a wall of tiles at Western Washington University; and a park bench in Eastlake that honors Stockley’s parents.
“But this one connects to the California monument,” Stockley said of the proposed Sea-Tac memorial, “and it’s more in memory of the Seattle citizens who were on the flight.”
The benches will be located at the end of one of the skybridges, away from the terminal — and where children can play while their parents are busy arranging or paying for transportation.
“We love the idea that the monument will be in a place to entertain children,” Stockley wrote on the GoFundMe page, “and decrease a family’s stress levels as they negotiate the long hours of air travel.”
She noted that the migration routes of whales and dolphins follow that of the flight from Mexico to California, all the way to Washington. And dolphins were reported to have circled the crash debris — so they have special meaning to the families.
Funding for the benches was started almost 20 years ago, when The Seattle Foundation took over the management of about $7,000 in donations that poured in from the community. The plans for a Seattle memorial fell by the wayside, Stockley said, as the California monument took precedence, and other, local monuments were created.
The money held by The Seattle Foundation is required to go to a government entity, so the foundation connected with the Port of Seattle to do something at the airport — but not where it might upset passengers.
“So many people in Seattle were affected by the crash,” Stockley said. “So many people were almost on that flight. They were on the next one or had a friend who was going to be on that flight.”
In the time since the crash, Stockley had a daughter, Daisy, who is now 15 and a freshman at Garfield High School. Her real name is Margaret — just like Stockley’s late mother. And Stockley and her sister have just completed a cookbook based on their father’s travels and recipes that will be published later this year.
“I have my cookbook and my bench and my memories,” Stockley said. “Seattle needs to have something.
“And with these benches, we’re giving it a space for grief.”