Morris Thompson family

Morris Thompson and his wife Thelma are pictured with their grandsons, Christopher, 5, and Warren, 9 months. Morris, his wife, and daughter Sheryl, were killed in the Alaska Airlines Flight 261 crash off the coast of California Monday Jan. 31, 2000. Photo courtesy of family, News-Miner File Photo

When the families of those who died in the crash of Alaska Flight 261 were brought out to the spot in the ocean where their loved ones fell from the sky, they knew to expect the worst: Shock and sorrow. Disbelief.

What they didn’t expect were the dolphins; tens of them, circling the crash site. They had been there since the night of crash, eight miles off the coast of Port Humene, Calif. on Jan. 31, 2000. Eighty-eight people died — 83 passengers, three flight attendants and two pilots — most of them headed home to Seattle after vacationing in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

Among them were Alaska Native leader Morris Thompson, his wife, Thelma and their daughter, Sheryl. Thompson was a pillar in the Fairbanks community and among Alaska Natives of the Interior, holding local, state and national positions of leadership throughout his life. At the time of crash, he had recently retired from 15 years as president and CEO of Doyon, Limited, the Fairbanks-based Alaska Native corporation. The downtown Alaska Native heritage and history museum and visitors center is named in his honor.

The National Transportation Safety Board blamed the crash on the failure to properly maintain the jackscrew assembly that would have stabilized the plane.

As the salvage operation continued, so did the dolphins, swimming around the site like sentries; a comfort to those who stood on the boat, afraid to look, but unable to turn away.

When artist Bud Bottoms met with the victims’ families about designing a memorial, he told them a Channel Island Chumash Indian myth: The 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. Rather than let them drown, Hutash turned them into dolphins. And the Chumash have considered dolphins their relatives ever since.

The families commissioned Bottoms to create a giant bronze sundial featuring three dolphins — a memorial that sits on the beach at Port Hueneme, 8 miles from the crash site. It was dedicated on the one-year anniversary of the accident.

On Thursday, the dolphins appeared again, this time in the form of two bronze benches placed just outside the terminal at Seattle Tacoma International Airport. Forged from another Bottoms design, they are intended to be play structures, where kids can take a moment from the rush of travel.

The benches were dedicated in a small, socially distanced ceremony, where Paige Stockley, who lost her parents, Tom and Peggy, in the crash, spoke for the families. (Tom Stockley was The Seattle Times’ wine critic).

She said there was “great relief in finally completing the journey of the flight that did not reach its destination.”

And Stockley acknowledged the “trepidation” around having a monument to an airplane crash at an airport.

“However, the beauty and the joy of dolphins convinced us all that this life-affirming piece, and recognition of the loved ones that did not make it home that night, won the day,” she said.

“Our hope is that these joyous juvenile dolphins, which can be touched and ridden and enjoyed, will become a beloved part of the airport experience in and of themselves,” she continued, “and that though our family members and friends lost their lives, their spirit lives on in the joy of leaping dolphins.”

The memorial was funded by the families and other donors through The Seattle Foundation.

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

Lyttle said there was “no blueprint to follow” when the family group asked that a memorial be placed somewhere on the property.

“How could we pay our respects to the people who lose their lives while being cognizant of the people who were preparing to travel?” he asked.

But, he said, the airport means many things to many people: Employment, commerce, a place where journeys begin or end.

“We’re also making this a place of memories and honor,” he said.

The dolphins are located in the Ground Transportation Plaza on the third floor of the parking garage.

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