Let me preface by saying, this is the most personal thing I have written in a long time. I am not sure if I should post this is on my own personal blog or here, but I think it is a story worth telling. Many of you have probably heard me say that January is a very difficult time of year for me, but perhaps I have never really told you why. The truth is that I come from a very small and tight family and January is a roller coaster of emotions that every year makes me plead for February to come early. It begins January 14th and remains until the 31st, which is the culmination of everything. January 14th was my grandma’s birthday and 10 years ago my uncle, his wife, and their baby took my grandma and her partner to Puerto Vallarta in celebration of her 73rd year of life. The plane never made it back to San Francisco and ultimately Seattle. The Alaska Airlines plane crashed into the Pacific Ocean off the coast of Port Hueneme on January 31, 2000. I was 13 at the time and had my first experience with death multiplied by 5 and intensified by NTSB meetings, news crews, and surrounded by other grieving families. Every year since then I have made the trek to Port Hueneme to be as close to where my family’s last moments were. My mom drove down from Santa Cruz on Friday and I met her at the hotel late Friday night after going to a friend’s birthday party first. Port Hueneme is one of the most confusing towns when it comes to maps, directions, and everything else. However, once you arrive, you are greeted by the kindest people and feel right at home.
Even though I didn’t get to the hotel until 12:30 in the morning my mom signed us both up for a boat ride to the crash site. Despite being here several years neither my mom or I have ever actually seen where it happened. I feel like I often talk up Port Hueneme but every year I come here I see rainbows and dolphins. It truly couldn’t be any more beautiful. Our boat, filled with family and friends of passengers, was surrounded by hundreds of dolphins. It was overwhelming. The actual site was calm and still and we dropped orchids and roses into the water. We have always known it was near the channel islands but this was the first time we saw it up close and with all of the sea life surrounding it.
The day was emotional, which was expected. My mom wanted to just order in but I talked her in to getting out. My mom, who lost her mom and only sibling on board the flight, is a huge sushi fan so when I suggest Japanese she finally agreed. This small town in Ventura County isn’t really known for food and yet on the Yelp App I found a very high rated sushi spot called, Sushi Hanada. I loved the sign near the table that says no side of wasabi. They serve sushi in the traditional Japanese manner between the rice in the fish, never mixed with soy sauce. One of my best friends is from Tokyo and taught me well that it is, “So typical American style.” I did the ordering and OMG! We got the live scallop, black cod, eel and cucumber and shitake roll.
The service was great and the food was phenomenal. The place was filled with locals and I think both of us weren’t quite ready to get back and face reality and the impending day. We did the smart thing and ordered more. I love that yellow pickled radish that I can never remember the name to and they added it to a cucumber roll and then we got crab and avocado wrapped in cucumber. One dish was better than the next and we finished it all off with a single mango mochi.
We left stuffed and had a great night sleep before awakening to our most dreaded day of the year. It was comforting to know that almost everyone sleeping in our hotel was feeling the same way about this day, the 31st of January. The first thing on the agenda was an interfaith service at the monument. There was a Chaplin, a Rabbi, and the most beautiful prayer in Hindi. The passengers on the flight were diverse and thus their families are. I am not a very religious person but left the morning service feeling lighter and more at ease for the rest of the day.
We had a couple hour break between this service and the big memorial at 3:00pm. I suggested we buy some orchids for our family to add to their name places on the beautiful sundial. My mom and I drove own a dirt road to Hatfield’s Orchids where we met George and got 5 very different and absolutely beautiful orchids. I must say that everyone in this community is so kind to us and they suffered too having this tragedy in their backyard.
We arrived back at the monument where we have been so many years prior. The crowd was bigger than it has been in the last 7 years and it was especially nice to see all the rescue workers again. The United States Coast Guard led the event; followed by families, poems, and music.
The rest was a blur of tears, synchronistic moments, and reflections. The names of each passenger was read, a bell was tolled, and a family member placed a rose down. At 4:22 the exact time the plane hit the water a helicopter flew by, a moment of silence was had, and we all gathered in a circle and held hands. It was nice that this year’s circle was bigger. A decade marked deserves it. This year I learned some interesting things I never knew. First, Hueneme means resting place. I also learned the rainbow bridge Native American fable that said there was a rainbow bridge that connected the channel islands to the mainland and when people crossed they couldn’t look down or else they’d drown. However, it was said that if you died in the ocean your soul would be taken on by the dolphins. Being able to see the herds of hundreds of dolphins at sea yesterday was so comforting. I am glad my mom decided to get her dolphin tattoo this year. It has been 10 years, my life is forever changed, but I am now ready to share my story with you. It is too beautiful not to. While I had a great loss, this preventable crash brought about the most NTSB recommendations. Hopefully, their lives are not in vain and at the very least I have gained an emotional attachment to a once unknown beautiful town and community. It is so much more than the place in between LA and Santa Barbara.
In remembrance of my family. My little grandma Jeannie who gave me an early appreciation for all of the world’s cuisines and made me sample it all in her kitchen and beyond. To my Uncle Bob who was a South San Francisco firefighter with the greatest sense of adventure as a rock climber, paraglider, and Three Stooges enthusiast. My 4 month old cousin Emily who was the youngest passenger on board. Also a big nod to my mom, who encouraged me to not only write but also post this. She has an incredible book on her own journey with grief after sudden loss and the legacy of my amazing family called, The Long Nights of Mourning.