Whidbey families heal through tragic connection

Knit together by tragedy, the families that lost loved ones in the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crash meet every year at the memorial in Port Hueneme, Calif.

Sometimes more often than that.

On its way back from Mexico to SeaTac Airport, the jetliner went down on Jan. 31, 2000, killing all 83 passengers and five crew members aboard.

The accident was due to a loss of control caused by a jackscrew failure, a type of equipment used to stabilize airplanes.

Families gathered on the 20th anniversary of the crash in observance, as they have done for many years since the memorial was constructed in 2003.

Affected families who share a Whidbey connection include Marianne Busche and her goddaughter Lori Cavender, who founded Ryan’s House for Youth, Clinton resident Jay Ryan and Coupeville resident Sandy Gilbert.

Cavender named the nonprofit Ryan’s House after her godbrother, Ryan Busche, who perished alongside his wife Abigail and five of his friends aboard the flight. Jay Ryan lost his brother Terry and sister-in-law Barbara, and their two adult sons, Jim and Bradford.

Jay and his wife had originally planned to be on the doomed flight, which was returning from a trip in Mexico. At the last minute they decided to stay home to care for Jay’s mother.

“I can still hear my brother hollering at me for not going,” Jay said.

He and his wife gave their plane tickets to Ryan and Abigail Busche, who were friends of Jay’s nephew.

Sandy Gilbert lost her sister, Janice Stokes and fiance Malcom Frederick Branson.

Two decades later, the families met on the beach where a memorial, a sundial with all 88 names, pays tribute to the lives lost. Dolphins, native to the area, surround the sundial.

This year, an apology for the accident was officially issued by Alaska Airlines.

It was something Marianne Busche had been working on for years.

“My godmother, that was one thing she wanted,” Cavender said. “She didn’t want to sue for money, she wanted an apology.”

Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden helped the families clean the memorial, a yearly tradition. He then gave an apology.

Jay recalls being terribly impressed by the sincerity of the apology, and said that Tilden had a very tough time in reading the apology. Jay pointed out that the airline lost some of their crew on the same flight.

Gilbert agreed.

“I think it was wonderful to hear an apology for sure,” she said. “And of course it brought my family to tears, just to hear that somebody said they’re sorry.”

For Cavender, it was her first time attending the memorial. She was touched by how powerful the memorial service was, from the 88 roses released by the Coast Guard to the candles lit at night to the choir present.

“Some of the best moments that I had were watching the families interact together,” Cavender said.

She added, “These families go every single year to the monument, and they have become a family themselves, grieving through this process and healing together.”

When tragedy struck and she lost her sister and soon-to-be brother-in-law, Gilbert found herself as the family spokesperson. Through meetings held around the island and in the Seattle area, she was able to meet the Busche and Ryan families.

“To find out we had this connection was just crazy,” Gilbert said.

Jay Ryan has continually found support from the families on Whidbey and beyond. He has attended the memorial in California every year, except for last year.

“We are closer than most other family members would be because we have a shared tragedy,” he said, “and 20 years after the fact we’re not saying, ‘Why don’t you get over this, why don’t you move on?’”