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SEA Memorial Helps Flight 261 Complete the Journey Home

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January 25, 2021

When Alaska Airlines Flight 261 went down nearly 21 years ago it left a hole in the Seattle community. People lost mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends, colleagues, and neighbors. For many, life as they knew it would never be the same. On January 31, 2000, the plane left Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and was headed to San Francisco and later Seattle when it went down off the coast of Southern California, between Port Hueneme and Anacapa Island, killing all 88 people on board. The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the crash on the failure to properly maintain the jackscrew assembly that would have stabilized the plane.

That night family members rushed to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) for news of their loved ones, many who were returning home to Seattle after vacationing in Puerta Vallarta. They waited in vain for a miracle, which never came. In the days, months, and years following the crash, shockwaves continue to be felt across the region.

“To this day you will hear of Seattleites who will tell you exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard the news,” said Paige Stockley, co-founder of the Alaska #261 Family Group said. Stockley lost her parents, Tom and Peggy Stockley, in the crash.

An uplifting memorial

In the months after the crash, families commissioned Santa Barbara artist Bud Bottoms to create a memorial on the beach at Port Hueneme, eight miles from the crash site. The sculpture featured a giant bronze sundial with three bronze dolphins. Years before, Bottoms had also created a dancing dolphin fountain sculpture in Puerto Vallarta, coincidentally the location where Flight 261 originated.

Now, two decades after the original memorial was created, the dolphins have migrated north to bring comfort to the Seattle community. Two bronze dolphin benches were placed just outside the terminal at SEA in the Ground Transportation Plaza, located on the third floor of the parking garage at the north end of the airport. The child-sized benches, designed for children to play on, were dedicated in a small physically-distanced ceremony featuring Stockley, speaking for the victims’ families, and a small group of Port staff. The event was livestreamed for friends, family, and community members.
 

A meaningful connection

The memorial, created from another Bottoms design, offers a joyful place where children can play while parents plan the next step of their travel journey. The dolphins have significant artistic, spiritual, and emotional meaning for the families. The flight path of Flight 261 from Mexico to California, then continuing north to Oregon and Washington, also echoes the migration routes of whales and dolphins. Dolphins were said to have circled the crash debris the night the plane went down.

When Bottoms first shared his vision for the original memorial with the victims’ families, he told a Channel Island Chumash Indian myth. Earth goddess Hutash created a “Rainbow Bridge” to help the Chumash cross from their crowded island to the mainland. She told them to keep their eyes up and not look down, or they could fall. But some did look down, and fell off the bridge. To save them from drowning, Hutash turned them into dolphins. Since then, the Chumash have considered dolphins their ancestors. The story resonated with the families and the idea of loved ones swimming with the dolphins in the site where the plane went down was comforting to some.

After the dolphins were unveiled, Airport Managing Director Lance Lyttle joined Stockley in placing four orchid leis around each of the dolphins’ necks.

SEA Airport Director Lance Lyttle and Paige Stockley place leis on the dolphins
SEA Airport Director Lance Lyttle and Co-chair of Alaska Flight #261 Family Group Paige Stockley at the dolphin bench memorial dedication ceremony.

"We are all connected by a profound sense of gratitude for the lives honored by these benches," said SEA Airport Director Lance Lyttle. "Although airport memorials are rare, they are very important, because an airport means many different things to different people. It can be a place of employment, a place to launch exciting journeys, and a place of commerce. With this dedication today we are also making it a place of memories and honor."

The memorial will provide an important space for the Seattle community to honor loved ones who lost their lives.

“Safety is our number one priority at Alaska Airlines. The remembrance of Flight 261 galvanizes this promise as a legacy to those who lost their lives, and their loved ones,” said Max Tidwell, Alaska’s vice president of safety.  “We’re grateful to the families and the Port for this heartening public tribute that will serve as a memorial for all who travel through SEA Airport for years to come.”

Stockley said the memorial is a reminder that although family members and friends lost their lives, their spirit lives on, represented in the joy of leaping dolphins. The comforting and joyful space at the airport is touchable and tangible, and offers a place to sit and reflect.

“I think (the families) would agree that they would want their loved ones to be remembered for how they were in life,” she said. “They died tragically but they were not tragic figures. They lived joyful lives and would want to be remembered for the lives they lived.”

 

Paige Stockley with dolphin benches
Paige Stockley at the dolphin bench memorial dedication.

 

Community support

After Bottoms created the original monument in California, Stockley and the Seattle families hoped to commission a Seattle monument at the airport where families had waited that night for their loved ones to return home. The Seattle community donated $7,000 to a Seattle Foundation fund, but the project was put on hold as the families tried to put their lives back together.

Sundial monument
20th Anniversary of Alaska Flight #261 crash at the sundial monument.

In early 2019, the Seattle Foundation contacted Stockley to see if the family group was still interested in pursuing a monument in Seattle. Stockley then reached out to the Port of Seattle on behalf of the Alaska Flight #261 Family Group with their vision of establishing a memorial at the airport, an estimated cost of $30,000 to produce (including shipping and other costs). In addition to the $7,000 the Foundation had already raised, Stockley created a Go Fund Me in November 2019 and raised $23,000 for the benches with the help of 119 donors, including family members, friends, pilots, and Alaska Airlines employees. Stockley and co-chair of the family group, Anarurdh Prasad, worked with Port staff, led by SEA Director of Customer Experience and Brand Strategy Julie Collins, to plan and carry out the meaningful and artistic tribute to their loved ones. One challenge was how to pay respects to the people who lost their lives while considering the emotional needs of those preparing to travel.

Although Bottoms had passed away in 2018, the molds for his bronze child dolphin benches created for a play area at a Santa Barbara plaza, were still intact. Bottoms’ widow Carole Ann Bottoms oversaw the replication and casting of these bronze dolphins for the families.

Paige Stockley
Paige Stockley with the original dolphins in Santa Barbara.

Returning home

To Stockley, the location of the dolphin benches at SEA is significant. She likened the location of this memorial to seaport memorials located at home ports remembering fishermen lost at sea.

“It made perfect sense to have something at the Seattle home port to memorialize those who did not make it home that night,” she said.

With the dedication of the dolphin benches, Stockley said families felt relief in finally completing the journey of the flight that did not reach its destination. Having a space closer to home to remember loved ones is incredible for the families and the community.

“In the future you can visit these dolphins every time you come to the airport and be comforted that our great loss was not forgotten.”

Lance Lyttle, Paige Stockley, Julie Collins
SEA Airport Director Lance Lyttle, Co-chair of Alaska Flight #261 Family Group Paige Stockley, and SEA Director of Customer Experience and Brand Strategy Julie Collins at the dolphin bench memorial dedication ceremony.

Visit the dolphin bench memorial in the Ground Transportation Plaza on the third floor of the parking garage.
 

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