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The apology: 20 years later, Alaska Airlines CEO delivers soothing words for families of those lost on Flight 261

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Waves lap over roses left in the surf by family members of victims after ceremonies to dedicate a monument to remember the victims of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, which plunged into the sea about eight miles offshore two years ago, at Port Hueneme Beach Park Thursday, Jan. 31, 2002, in Port Hueneme, Calif.  The crash took 88 lives when the jetliner crashed at 4:21 p.m. on Jan. 31, 2000.  (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Waves lap over roses left in the surf by family members of victims after ceremonies to dedicate a monument to remember the victims of Alaska Airlines Flight 261, which plunged into the sea about eight miles offshore two years ago, at Port Hueneme Beach Park Thursday, Jan. 31, 2002, in Port Hueneme, Calif. The crash took 88 lives when the jetliner crashed at 4:21 p.m. on Jan. 31, 2000. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon) Photo Gallery

It took 20 years to hear those 20 words.

But when they came, they were just what many of the families of those who died in the crash of Alaska Airlines Flight 261 needed to heal: A formal apology, delivered by Alaska Airlines CEO Brad Tilden.

“Alaska Airlines was responsible for the loss of flight 261,” Tilden said at memorial ceremony held last Friday on a California beach overlooking the crash site. “For that and for your loss, I am extremely sorry.”

In the years since the 2000 crash, the airline has issued statements expressing regret and “profound sorrow” for the pain and loss suffered by the relatives of the 88 victims, which included the five-member crew and 30 people connected to Alaska Airlines or its sister airline, Horizon Air. It has highlighted steps it has taken to improve maintenance and safety: hiring more employees, conducting more than 1,000 internal audits and commissioning a safety review by an outside entity.

But nothing like this.

“I think it was the first time it was heard, that it was effective,” said Tilden, who was Alaska’s vice president of finance at the time of the crash and became CEO in 2012. “I do think it was a formal apology.

“Not every family is accepting of us and I don’t blame them,” he said Wednesday. “But many others were full of graciousness and forgiveness. It was humbling.”

The apology was inspired by Marianne Busche, a therapist who lost her son and daughter-in-law, Ryan and Abigail Busche, in the crash off of Port Hueneme, California. Six months ago, she met with Tilden to speak about the value of an apology, how just the right words can be a balm for long-open wounds, and help people heal.

In the time after the crash, Busche said, “We didn’t want to settle for money. We wanted an apology. The money was almost an insult.”

She and her family did get “a closed-door apology” three years later, but it wasn’t enough. She wanted every family to receive one. So she met with Tilden, who understood and agreed with her.

“It’s a huge deal,” Busche said. “It’s unprecedented, and that’s what I was hoping would happen. I feel really good about it.”

Tilden felt it was the right time to say what so many have been waiting to hear.

“The 20th anniversary was going to be especially meaningful,” Tilden said. “The families are getting older and moving on. When Marianne talked about the healing power of an apology, that meant something to me. I got it. I wanted to do my part.”

As has become customary, the families spent some time in the morning cleaning the memorial to the victims — a sundial with dolphins on either side — that was installed on the beach in 2003.

This year, Tilden joined them, climbing a ladder to clean the top of the sundial. “I was touched that they wanted me to do that,” said Tilden, who also attended the ceremony marking the 10-year anniversary of the crash.

When it came time for Tilden to speak, the crowd fell into a certain sort of quiet, said Jan Penna Crane, 75, who lost her daughter, Debra Penna, in the accident.

“You know where there is particular form of silence that seems to descend?” Crane asked. “Everyone seemed to feel how meaningful this was. I sensed a silence of expectation, a waiting. Was this going to happen? Was it really happening?”

It was.

“To the families and loved ones of those lost on Alaska Flight 261,” Tilden began. “There are not a lot of things on my desk, but one is an acrylic square given to me by some of you, recognizing your loss and reminding the leaders of Alaska to never forget this part of our history.

” … Alaska Airlines was responsible for the loss of Flight 261,” he continued. “For that, and for your loss, I am extremely sorry.”

“Brad could barely read the apology,” said Paige Stockley, who lost her parents, Peggy Stockley and former Seattle Times wine writer Tom Stockley, in the crash. “He was very choked up. I was touched like I never imagined, and it meant everything to the families.

“Some were still not ready for it, but others said it made a big difference.”

As she listened, Crane felt a long wait coming to an end.

“Many of us did request this, years and years ago, and we were promised it,” she said. “But it didn’t happen because lawyers dominate this scene, as we all know.”

Each family member was given a hard copy of the apology, signed by Tilden.

“The wait has been long,” Crane said. “But this has added a layer of peace to in my heart that hasn’t been there before.”

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