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On the Covers 

Two decades of Humboldt County history through the North Coast Journal's pages.

"Movers & Shakers," by Judy Hodgson. July 1990.

It started out innocently enough. A Humboldt State professor, volunteering for a nonprofit, wanted to know who were the most powerful people in the county. This information could be useful in fund-raising, for instance.

Jerald Krause oversaw the research by his students. He first ran a survey in 1984-5 and finished a second one in 1990, the Journal's first year of publication.

"We wanted to conduct a community needs assessment. First we identified a group of leaders and then we asked them what they saw as community problems and funding priorities," Krause said.

To come up with the list of leaders, Krause began with six "knowledgeable informants," key people in a broad cross section of occupations including public relations and the news media. Those informants were asked questions like "Who are the most influential people in the county in terms of their ability to lead others?" "Name the person who has the most power in the county" and "List 10 people most effective in initiating projects."

They were also asked who are the 10 people most effective at stopping projects.

This year [1990] the number of "knowledgeable informants" was expanded to 17 who in turn identified approximately 286 leaders.

The results grouped these 286 people into three distinct categories. The A List contained only 26 names and garnered far and above more votes than those on the B and C lists. Some of the 26 were obvious: top politicians and business owners. Others were less well known. Some of the A List-ers have since died, but a few would likely top the list again today.

Doug Bosco (member of Congress), Louie Bucher (superintendent of Humboldt County schools), John Buffington (Superior Court judge), John Campbell (president, Pacific Lumber Co.), Wes Chesbro (supervisor, 3rd District), Jerry Colby (publisher, Times-Standard), Jack F. Daly (chairman of the board, Daly's), John Frank (director, Humboldt County Welfare Department), Robert Gearheart (professor of engineering, HSU), Glen Goldan (owner, Century 21), Marilee Hadley (president, W.E.C.A.R.E.), Dan Hauser (member, state Assembly), Barry Keene (member, state Senate), Alistair McCrone (president, HSU), Tim McKay (director, Northcoast Environmental Center), Michele McKeegan (executive director, Planned Parenthood), Tom McMurray (business person), Bonnie Neely (chair, Humboldt County Board of Supervisors), Dave Renner (sheriff), Cedric Sampson (president, College of the Redwoods), Anna Sparks (supervisor, 5th Distrtict), Alex Stillman (business person), Edy Vassaide (vice president, Humboldt Bank), Delores Vellutini (president, Eureka Baking Co.), Joe Wheeler (Western Division manager, Louisiana Pacific), and Connie Young (owner, Irish Shoppe).

The controversy was not over the A List, but the debate that ensued over who was worthy to be on the B and C lists, a debate that continued for months and even years.

 

"What's Wrong at City Hall?" by Bill Israel. September 1990.

Let's face it: Eureka politics use to be much more fun.

Who controls the government of the city of Eureka -- its citizens, or elected officials who ignore them?

That's what City Attorney David Prendergast claims is at stake at City Hall. Prendergast won a surprise court order last month that put him back to work investigating or prosecuting [alleged] criminal actions against Councilmen Ed Davenport and Tom Hannah. But another city attorney says Prendergast is just trying to hold the city hostage "because he wants to keep his job." Now, with the district attorney and the state Attorney General's office apparently staying out of the affair, Eureka city police may be directed to investigate some of the same council members who set their salaries.

In later reports, Prendergast filed six counts against Davenport of illegally influencing city personnel and one count of revealing the contents of a closed session before being fired by the City Council. A special prosecutor dropped the investigation into any potential legal issues involving Hannah. All charges were later dropped against Davenport just two weeks before he left office that year.

Bill Israel continued to cover the tumultuous city hall shenanigans through the firing of two city managers in the 1990s. Current City Manager David Tyson took the job only with a guarantee in his contract of a requirement for a four-vote minimum for termination. Israel also covered the volatile timber wars for the Journal in those early years.

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"Killer Roads," by Mary Barnett. January 1991.

Mary Barnett worked for the Union newspaper in Arcata until February 1988 when she returned to her home in Santa Cruz. She visited Humboldt occasionally to report as a freelancer, and she could always find a good story, especially spending time with public records.

An 11-year-old girl being brought up in Redding by her aunt lost both parents to Highway 36 in separate accidents. Her father was killed when his car ran off the road and flipped over eight months before she was born. Two years later, on Halloween, her mother's car rounded a bend near Grizzly Peak Park and collided with another vehicle, killing her instantly.

Highway 36 is only one of Humboldt County's traffic trouble spots, but it is at least one of the worst.

 

"Petrolia's New Neighbors," by Joe Cempa. June 1991.

This cover story brought the attention of the Church of Scientology and a lawsuit threat that never materialized.

A few miles outside of this coastal community, a massive 400-foot subterranean vault constructed of steel and concrete lies beneath a peaceful knoll overlooking the Pacific.

The breadth and dimension of the vault stagger the imagination: 100 feet longer than a football field and 20 feet in diameter, the two-story sarcophagus is almost complete. It is designed to withstand the ravages of nature as well as man-made destruction.

Humboldt County is now home to one of the most impregnable storage repositories known to man. Its prime purpose is to hold the teaching, philosophy and enlightenment of a single man: L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology, one of the most contentious, controversial religions ever founded.

 

"Haircuts Cost County $100,000. Who's to blame?" by Marie Gravelle. July 1991.

Humboldt County has spent more than $2 million in the last four years to satisfy claims filed against it, ranging from allegations of abuse in the jail to unsafe road conditions, county Risk Manager Siroos Khoshbin said. A majority of those claims were settled out of court ... The cost of attorney fees and the risk of losing a jury trial are weighed against the cost of immediate settlement. A quick settlement, even if it's up into six digits, is often cheaper than extended litigation. ...

The most recent settlement involved four protesters who were arrested during last July's Redwood Summer activities. The four sued the county in federal court because their heads were shaved during their stay in the Humboldt County Jail. The Humboldt County Sheriff said the shaving was done to prevent the spread of lice. The protesters say there was no lice and if there had been, the problem could have been solved with a lice-killing shampoo rather than forcible shaving.

They won $100,000.

Gravelle took the story one important step further by developing a chronology of claims filed against jail personnel involved alleged inmate abuse over the previous five years. She discovered inmates were suing and receiving larger sums of money due to a pattern of abuse, including one specific correctional officer who was involved in several injury incidents inside the jail.

 

"Death in the Tidal Zone," by Marie Gravelle. September 1991.

Like windrows swept by a giant broom, rows of dead sea urchins, mussels and sea snails lie along a stretch of beach a few miles north of the tiny town of Petrolia, stark reminders of earthquakes that jolted this region in late April.

Sitting above the most seismically active area in the nation, this section of California known as the Lost Coast recently became a magnet for geologists, marine biologists and just plain curiosity seekers. They are flocking to the beach to see and study California's first recorded coastal uplift. Scientists now believe that a 15-mile stretch of coastline, from Sea Lion Gulch north to Cape Mendocino, was pushed up as much as four feet by the original earthquake and aftershocks that followed earlier this year.

Gravelle wrote a separate piece about Indian legends surrounding earthquakes and tsunamis, including a story from the early 1900s that most likely originated with Tolowas:

Standing on rocks above the river mouth, a man felt the ground move suddenly. Trees swayed, some fell and the shaking seemed to go on forever.

"When the Earth shakes," the Indian's father had told him, "look at your canoe. If it's sinking, get up on the reefs and run for high ground."

 

"Bye, Bye, Ricky?" by Marie Gravelle. October 1994.

Local police enjoy a good laugh and Ricky Spahn has certainly provided one. He'll be remembered as the burglar who rummaged through a vehicle, found a Polaroid camera and took his own mug shot. Then he fled, leaving behind both camera and incriminating evidence. You might say the 30-year-old Eurekan is a little dumb. ... He once tried to get a stolen television set home by wheeling it down the street in a shopping cart -- in broad daylight.

If convicted this time, Spahn's luck will have run out. He'll be the first Humboldt County resident to be sentenced under California's new Three Strikes law. And he'll go away for a long, long time.

 

"Bankrupt on Jupiter," by Wally Graves. May 1995.

A story about a dredge that gives ample evidence that "nature bats last."

South of Fields Landing where Highway 101 turns inland from Humboldt Bay, lies an abandoned dredge from another era, mud-bound near a grove of tall, pale eucalyptus and dark pines.

The dredge's long boom hangs useless, her cables turned to rust, her cabins atwit with barn swallows, her bottom rotting in an ancient channel where Salmon Creek flowed before it was diverted by cattlemen.

The dredge's name is Jupiter.

 

"The Accusers of Father Timmons," by Lisa Ladd. February 1996.

In early 1996 Humboldt County residents were reeling with the news that one of its most beloved priests was being accused of molestation. Claims were trickling out from what seemed like unreliable "victims" decades after the fact. Popular native son The Rev. Gary Timmons had been stationed in Humboldt County more than once in his 30-year tenure as a priest. He founded Camp St. Michael while still in the seminary.

In the introduction, we wrote, "If the allegations are true [they were], Timmons has been sexually assaulting children for more than two decades, mostly the children of his church."

This is a children's story.

Once upon a time there was a 12-year-old boy whose father was a judge. The boy idolized his father and liked nothing better than to be with him, but his father worked hard and was very, very, busy. So the boy was happy when a priest at his church started spending time with him, and he was very happy, too, when the priest invited the boy to summer camp.

At the summer camp, however, the priest did some things to the boy that made the boy feel bad. And when the priest invited the boy to go camping again, the boy didn't want to go.

But his parents thought the priest was a good man. They thought the camp was good for their son. So the told him to go with the priest.

 

"The New Majority: County Chief & Top Planner Cut" by Judy Hodgson. May 1997.

For months Chris Arnold had been telling people she was job hunting and would submit her resignation in the spring. The budget brawls, finger pointing over accounting snafus and surprise surpluses, and battles with other department heads had taken a toll on the county administrative officer.

Supervisor Bonnie Neely had criticized Arnold for years -- often in public. And newly seated Roger Rodoni ... ran his campaign on the promise to get rid of her.

Arnold still had the support of three board members while she was job-hunting -- up until Feb. 24 when Fifth District Supervisor Paul Kirk suddenly changed his mind. He voted with Neely and Rodoni to fire not only Arnold, but also Planning Director Tom Conlon.

It was in a follow-up interview with the Journal that Kirk unwittingly said on tape that he and his fellow supervisors had been holding closed meetings on replacing Conlon and inviting builders and developers into those personnel sessions for advice -- a clear violation of the Brown Act.

The Journal filed a lawsuit against the county and endured two years in court. The Journal eventually won. It was a rare Brown Act conviction, and the county paid all legal fees. The story and numerous editorials won state and national awards and the Democracy in Action award from the League of Women Voters.

 

"The Image Seen ’Round the World -- and Some That Weren't," by Judy Hodgson. December 1997.

On Oct. 30 Dan Rather looked sternly into the camera, lifted his eyebrows and said, "In California tonight, an alleged case of police abuse with an unusual twist. Environmentalists are charging that they were assaulted with pepper spray. Police say it was effective crowd control. Whatever it was, the confrontation itself is preserved on videotape. CBS' John Blackstone has the tape and the story."

It was the lead story in major newspapers across the nation the next morning. Before the week was out the heavily edited tape with audio was posted on the Internet and newspaper editorial writers from coast to coast began excoriating local law enforcement for using a chemical weapon again nonviolent protestors.

Condemnation was quick and universal outside of Humboldt County -- even from law enforcement leaders. Reaction within the community was mixed -- and very polarized -- ranging from "The demonstrators got what they deserved" to "Oh my god, this is Selma in the ’60s," referring to civil rights demonstrators in Alabama who were brutally beaten by police.

The Journal shot and printed still images of the video from a television screen to show the entire confrontation as it unfolded in the Eureka office of Rep. Frank Riggs. The stills show the eyelids of the protesters being pulled open and pepper spray applied with Q-tips by officers.

 

"A Legacy of Greed," by George Ringwald. Sept. 30, 1999.

Money, great gobs of it, and a gaggle of bankers and lawyers trolling in its wake; a family divided within itself, yet united against perceived enemies outside; allegations of chicanery and skullduggery leveled again the sacrosanct Humboldt Area Foundation, with even the revelation that among its "grants" was an $85,000 personal loan to its executive director; and a woman of pioneer stock who danced in the redwoods and whose legacy has been both bane and beneficence: These are among the elements of Humboldt County's longest-running soap opera.

The only things missing that would turn it into a classic whodunit are sex and murder most dire -- and even they turn up on the periphery at least.

The story generated a backlash from readers. The Journal was criticized for printing the story about a lawsuit filed by heirs of HAF founder and patron saint Vera Vietor, and what had happened since her death in 1972. The story stood up under scrutiny and heated debate. Ringwald's reporting was impeccable. White House correspondent Helen Thomas was in town the next week to speak at HSU. When she was asked about the brouhaha, she said, "If you want to be popular and well liked, forget journalism as a career."

 

"Special Report: Nursing Home Neglect," by Arno Holschuh. Nov. 9, 2000.

State inspections showed pattern of dangerous short staffing at Sua nBridge. The financial reports showed a company on the ropes. The SunBridge chain eventually went bankrupt, and was succeeded locally by Skilled Healthcare, which operated the five for-profit nursing homes in the county.

Problems continued. Nine years later, freelancer Carol Harrison would write about a new round of neglect and abuse at the facilities ("Immediate Jeopardy," June 4 2009), and just last month a Humboldt County jury fined the chain over $600 million for violations of the California health code.

When resident A, an 86-year-old man diagnosed with dementia, was admitted to SunBridge Granada Care and Rehabilitation nursing home in Eureka, a sensor was attached to him because of his tendency to wander. It was determined he posed a risk to himself because his balance and judgment were poor. ...

There was only one nursing assistant on duty in the wing of the nursing home April 22 at 3:30 p.m. when Resident A opened an exit door, rolled his wheelchair out, unlatched a gate and fell down 12 concrete steps. ... Resident A, unconscious and bleeding from the head, was hospitalized with fractures of the skull and spine. He died a week later.

 

"Poisoned Slough," by Keith Easthouse. June 13, 2002.

Journal Editor Keith Easthouse caused a stir when he published this piece right before Arcata's annual Oyster Festival. It examined new evidence of dioxin poisoning in Humboldt Bay, especially from the site of the Sierra Pacific mill between Arcata and Manila -- relatively close to the beds used by the oyster industry for farming. Though the area's oysters are tested for bacteriological contaminants, Easthouse found, dioxin testing was considered too expensive at the time.

On June 4, the North Coast Regional Water Quality Control Board sent a letter to Sierra Pacific requesting that the company perform a "human health and ecological risk assessment" of the slough. The letter, which has not been made public until now, notes that in June of last year water board staff took sediment samples from two locations in the slough near the plant and found dioxin. The letter says dioxin, one of the most toxic chemicals known, was also found in sediment in a ditch on the mill site. "The available information indicates that discharges from the facility have impacted the slough sediments near the facility and (that) additional work is necessary to determine the extent of the contamination and the associated risks to human health and the aquatic life in the Mad River Slough."

The letter also makes reference to a recent toxicological study that found elevated levels of dioxin in mussels and crabs immediately adjacent to the Sierra Pacific mill. The study, which has also not been made public before, was commissioned by the Ecological Rights Foundation, a Garberville-based environmental group that is suing Sierra Pacific for alleged violations of the Clean Water Act. In addition to looking at shellfish near the mill, the study also collected and tested shellfish in Hookton Slough, located at the relatively pristine southern tip of Humboldt Bay. Mussels there had no detectable dioxin contamination and the levels for a species of crab were extremely low, according to the study.

 

"Worlds of Pain," by Emily Gurnon. Aug. 29, 2002.

Emily Gurnon, a staff writer for the paper at the time, won a prestigious Casey Medal from the Journalism Center on Children and Families for this story about the dearth of dental care options for low-income children in Humboldt County.

It was a year ago that Rachael Riness first noticed the brown decay on the tops of her daughter's front teeth. At the time, Riness was homeless and living in Santa Rosa -- far from her native Humboldt County. She brushed the little girl's teeth "as often as I had a toothbrush," she says, and beyond that, she didn't think about it. Other things, like how they would eat and where they were going to sleep that night, were more pressing.

Besides, Riness thought, she'd be heading back to Eureka soon. "I'm thinking, I'll just take her to the dentist when I get home," she recalls.

That never happened.

 

"The Debi August File," by Emily Gurnon and Hank Sims. Sept. 9, 2004.

The Journal once again had to go to court to unseal transcripts in a grand jury-brought legal action against Fortuna City Councilmember Debi August, who stood accused of blurring the line between her official city duties and her day job as a real estate broker. Court staff had illegally refused to provide transcripts of the deposition in the case; the Journal fought to open the record. A year later, the Northern California Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists honored our work with one of its James Madison Freedom of Information Awards.

The case against Debi August, who has since retired from the council, was thrown out by a Humboldt County judge after the foreperson of that year's grand jury was found to have squirreled away documents pertaining to the case in her own home, failing to provide them to the defense.

In the summer of 2002, real estate broker and newly elected Fortuna Councilmember Debi August became the official agent for the Smith/West subdivision, an upscale "estate" development of 39 hilltop parcels on South Loop Road in Fortuna.

In that role, she represented sister-brother developers Carmen Smith and Ted West for over a year as the initial work of planning the 24-acre subdivision proceeded. She made contact with city employees charged with overseeing the project, arguing against their recommendations that the developer install sidewalks and a second road linking the project with city streets. Finally, at a Planning Commission meeting in September 2003, August rose from her chair as City Council liaison to the commission and switched hats. She said that she was now acting as a private citizen representing the developer and presented a case advocating the subdivision to the commissioners, who serve at the pleasure of the City Council.

August, then 53, initially told city staff that she planned, as a real estate broker, to sell the parcels should the development go through. Later, when questions of conflict of interest arose, she said she would not be involved in the sales. 

 

"Web of Lies," by Hank Sims. Sept. 1, 2005.

Humboldt County political consultant Richard Salzman was riding high in 2005, having managed District Attorney Paul Gallegos' overwhelmingly successful fight against the recall campaign against him, which was funded by former Pacific Lumber corporate parent Maxxam, against whom Gallegos had filed suit. But Salzman -- whose techniques were usually controversial -- was also in the habit of writing letters to the editor under false or assumed names, sometimes using these fictitious personae to heap praise upon his own person. The Journal used information found in e-mails sent by Salzman and his avatars to uncover the scheme.

For at least the last 10 months, controversial political figure Richard Salzman has authored numerous letters to local newspapers under fake names, the Journal has learned. The letters, which were signed "R. Trent Williams" and "Dick Wyatt," were published in the Journal and the Eureka Reporter, the only two local newspapers with extensive online archives. It is believed that they also appeared in other publications. 

Nearly every hot political topic to hit Humboldt County in the past year is addressed in the letters -- from the aftermath of the failed recall attempt on District Attorney Paul Gallegos (during which Salzman was the DA's campaign chairman) to the battle over the new county general plan, Eureka City Councilman Chris Kerrigan's reelection, the threatened boycott of Arcata and the backlash against Salzman himself.

 

"On Different Tracks," by Hank Sims. March 16, 2006.

Eureka businessman Rob Arkley's Marina Center -- a proposed big box-centered development on the site of the Balloon Track, an abandoned rail yard -- has been a political flashpoint for about six years. As of this writing, it is the subject of legal actions, California Coastal Commission appeals and an upcoming ballot measure. If they ever do break ground on the Marina Center -- a big if -- the shovels and steamrollers are still years away.

In 2006, we took a look at how other towns across the country, similar in size and demography to Eureka, successfully redeveloped their own abandoned rail yards by shooting for consensus from the get-go.

In its heyday, the Balloon Track was the nerve center of the region's economy. It linked Humboldt County to the outside world, to hundreds and thousands of other cities around California and the United States, many of which had their own central rail yards. In the years that followed, as cities grew outward and old industries faded along with the once-mighty railroads, many of them were left with Eureka's problem: a vacant parcel of land, often soaked through with petroleum and other nasty chemicals, that had the potential to become prime real estate.

Last week, the city of Sacramento lifted the curtain on what is being called "the largest infill development project west of the Mississippi" -- a master plan aimed at reclaiming an abandoned 250-acre rail yard which, when built out, will essentially double the size of that city's downtown. Salt Lake City's rail yard redevelopment project was a showcase project when that city hosted the Winter Olympics in 2002. Santa Fe, Milwaukee, and Portland (Maine) are also among the numerous large American cities looking at ways to make use of old rail land. 

But it's not just large cities that are looking for creative ways to fill the holes left by railroad downsizing. There are plenty of places the size of Eureka that are using them to build and expand in meaningful ways. And a lot of them are doing a better, and smarter, job than we are.

 

"The Squeeze," by Hank Sims. July 5, 2007.

The trail advocacy movement has been one of the strongest new political forces in Humboldt County in the last few years, and it has been driven, in part, by the anguish of having a publicly owned right of way around Humboldt Bay that has not been used in over a decade. This 2007 story caught trail advocates at a turning point -- a moment when it became clear to all that the North Coast Railroad Authority, the public agency that controls that right of way, was relying on smoke and mirrors to keep the railroad dream alive.

The North Coast Railroad Authority, a public agency, an arm of the state of California, has been dinking around with the old Humboldt-to-Bay Area railroad line for 15 years now, consuming tens of millions of dollars in public funds and accomplishing very little. It's been six years since the NCRA has run any trains at all, nearly a decade since the last train made it to Humboldt County. 

But hope springs eternal in the railroad world, and the NCRA and its supporters, armed with a sheaf of fanciful dates and numbers -- trains to Humboldt by 2011! -- have secured themselves a solid place in the hearts and minds of local policymakers, from members of local city councils all the way up to our elected representatives in Sacramento and Washington. And the authority has received many boosts of late. For the first time in years its coffers have been filled, thanks to infusions of public money. It's been a long time since its prospects have looked so bright. 

If that's the case, though, it's only because the authority has so far been able to ignore all the many problems raised by its drive to restore the rails. That blessed state will not last forever. But it will certainly last long enough for the authority to accomplish one thing -- dragging the Bay Trail into a bureaucratic quagmire almost as impossible as its own.

 

"Codes, Damned Codes," by Heidi Walters. Feb. 28, 2008.

In 2007 and 2008, Humboldt County's code enforcement unit went off the rails. The unit -- normally tasked mostly with assuring that buildings are built according to regulation -- undertook a number of armed raids on certain rural property owners. The phenomenon mostly went under the radar until staff writer Heidi Walters published an in-depth look at one of those raids -- at the ramshackle Trinidad community known as Yee Haw.

July 26, 2007, a Thursday, started off with one of those typical, sharp-cold misty mornings that Humboldt County summers specialize in. But out at Yee Haw, events were about to happen that would make it one of the most unsettling of days, one the people who were living there at the time still talk about with indignation and dismay. Earlier this month, some of them described how they remember those events: 

Just before 9 a.m. that day, Charles Garth walked down his driveway to the metal swing gate at the entrance to his property, which lies at the end of Quarry Road in the woods across the highway from Trinidad. Humboldt County Code Enforcement Officer John Desadier was supposed to be there to inspect the place for code compliance. They'd made the appointment that Monday. Fifty minutes passed. No Desadier. Garth gave up and started walking back down the road. Then he heard the rumble of diesel engines, and looking back he saw a Sheriff's SUV rounding the corner. And another and another and another. Seven of them, recalled Garth. They stopped, a bunch of deputies jumped out, and Garth said three of them rushed him, spun him around, searched him and demanded to see his ID. Then, not waiting for him to produce the ID, he said, they shoved a warrant in his face.

 

"The Iceman Cometh," by Japhet Weeks. June 26, 2008.

After the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency conducted massive raids against undocumented workers at Arcata's Sun Valley Floral Farms, prompting mass layoffs, staff writer Japhet Weeks tracked down the people affected. The Journal published Weeks' story in both English and Spanish.

Alejandro couldn't have been all that surprised when on the afternoon of Monday, June 9, his employer, Sun Valley Floral Farms, told him not to come to work the next day. The flower growers had received a letter from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) a week earlier identifying 283 workers on its payroll suspected of being undocumented.

It wasn't the first time, the soft-spoken Alejandro told the Journal in Spanish on a recent weekend afternoon, that Sun Valley had told him to stay away from work because of his fraudulent identification papers. Two years ago approximately 300 undocumented Sun Valley employees were warned by the company to stay home because la Migra was coming the next day, he said. They were also told to get new social security cards. After immigration had come and gone, the employees returned to the farm. Within 15 days, Alejandro was the proud owner of a new social security number.

 

"The Plane that Wasn't There," by Ryan Burns. Dec. 17, 2009.

A horrific late-night plane crash at sea, just miles away from the Eureka-Arcata airport, was made so much worse by the response of the county's airport manager. Ryan Burns, who covered the crash when it happened, followed the case right through to the conclusions reached by the National Transportation Safety Board in their investigation of the crash. It turned out that faulty communication between local airport staff and air traffic control personnel meant that a rescue effort, which could conceivably have saved the lives of the pilot and his passenger, was never launched.

At just below 4,000 feet, Milushev, following the controller's instructions, switched his radio over to the local common traffic advisory frequency, where approaching pilots communicate with one another. (The local airport has no control tower of its own.) The Seattle controller, now unable to reach Milushev, then watched with concern as over the next 15 minutes the plane dropped lower and lower, sinking well below the minimum crossing altitude for a runway approach. Multiple times, the controller tried to reestablish radio contact, to no avail. He called Air Traffic Control in Oakland and asked them to try Milushev on the radio -- also unsuccessful. Finally, he summoned his supervisor, and together they watched as three radar sweeps showed the airplane moving south-southeast toward the jagged coast, less than a mile from Trinidad Head and a mere 100 feet above the surface of the sea. The airport runway lies at 221 feet.

And then the plane disappeared.

What happened next remains unclear despite investigations by the Coast Guard, the Humboldt County Department of Public Works and the National Transportation Safety Board, not to mention scrutiny by the friends and families of both Milushev and Gustafson. What's known is that shortly after the plane disappeared, Humboldt County Airports Manager Jacqueline Hulsey told the Seattle Center supervisor that the plane had landed safely at the Arcata-Eureka Airport when, in fact, it had crashed into the ocean six-and-a-half miles away. This erroneous report, along with an unexplained delay the following morning, postponed search and rescue efforts by more than 12 hours. The families of Milushev and Gustafson believe that lapse could have meant the difference between life and death.

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Hank Sims

About The Author

Judy Hodgson

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Judy Hodgson is the publisher of the North Coast Journal.

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