Remembering: 50th anniversary of Alaska Airlines Flight 1866 - Must Read Alaska
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Thursday, October 28, 2021
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Remembering: 50th anniversary of Alaska Airlines Flight 1866

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Fifty years ago an Alaska Airlines jet crashed into the side of a mountain between Haines and Juneau, ending the lives of 111 souls — all 104 passengers and seven crew members.

Flight 1866 was on the “milk run” from Anchorage to Seattle on Sept. 4, 1971. It had stopped in Cordova and Yakutat, where it loaded passengers and hundreds of pounds of moose meat from a successful hunt, and was to stop in Juneau, Sitka, and on to SeaTac.

Approximately 18 miles west of Juneau it was on approach when an erroneous navigation readout led the crew to descend the jet prematurely. With the pilot following the flight instructions from the control towers in Anchorage, and then Juneau, at approximately 12:15 pm the aircraft struck the eastern slope of ravine in the Chilkat Range  at about 2,500 feet above sea level. The Boeing 727-100 exploded on impact; the investigation revealed that there was not even “a last-second awareness” among the crew that the crash was imminent.

It was the first fatal jet aircraft crash involving Alaska Airlines, and at the time was the deadliest aircraft accident in the United States. It’s still Alaska’s worst air disaster.

Watch old crash footage from Department of Public Safety

The day of the crash was not unlike today’s weather in northern Southeast Alaska along Lynn Canal — foggy and misty, very typical of early September.

First officer Leonard Beach of Seattle was at the controls. He had been with Alaska Airlines for five years. Flight captain Dick Adams, 41, was also from Seattle and had been with Alaska Airlines since 1955, with thousands of flight hours in that particular jet. The flight engineer was James Carlson of Seattle. Beach’s wife Cathy was one of the flight attendants in the passenger cabin of the plane. This was during the days of the Golden Samovar Service, when the flight attendants wore uniforms that paid tribute to the Russian days of Alaska.

Cathy Beach

After the wreckage was located, the Alaska State Troopers and Juneau National Guardsmen collected the remains and they were flown out in body bags by helicopters to Juneau — with the sound of choppers ferrying the bloody remains for the following week. The identification of the souls onboard took another month; the National Guard Armory in downtown Juneau was converted into a morgue for the gruesome work of matching body parts of 111 people.

The plane, in thousands of pieces, was left on the mountain, where it is today, with still some of the old orange stripes still visible, the colors that Alaska Airlines used back in the day.

Flying into Juneau is still one of the trickiest approaches in the nation, and it’s believed that some of the navigational beacons used at the time were sending inaccurate signals to the crew. The early analysis of the crash was inconclusive, but later it became more clear that the crew had followed the instructions from the Anchorage tower and the Juneau tower to the T. Instead, a curious atmospheric condition may have warped the trajectory of one of the signal beams. The black box recovered from the plane showed no operator error.

The official NTSB report had been filed long before, however, and indicated there may have been human error:

“The National Transportation Safety Board determines that the probable cause of this accident was a display of misleading navigational information concerning the flight’s progress along the localizer course which resulted in a premature descent below obstacle clearance altitude. The origin or nature of the misleading navigational information could not be determined. The Board further concludes that the crew did not use all available navigational aids to check the flight’s progress along the localizer nor were these aids required to be used. The crew also did not perform the required audio identification of the pertinent navigational facilities,” the NTSB final report said.

The crash of Flight 1866 and others in the Chilkat Range led to the installation of a sophisticated pilot program around the Juneau Airport using GPS to calculate precise landing pathways that are used today.

Editor’s note: If you have memories about the crash of Flight 1866, please note them in the comment section below.

PASSENGER/CREW MANIFEST

Adams, Baxter, Jr.Barrow, AlaskaPassenger
Adams, LucyBarrow, AlaskaPassenger
Aiken, BerniceBarrow, AlaskaPassenger
Anderson, EdSeattle, WashingtonPassenger
Baetcke, G. B.Douglas, ArizonaPassenger
Bernard, FrancisCordova, AlaskaPassenger
Bottiger, JamesFort Greeley, AlaskaPassenger
Boyles, John W., Sr.Eagle River, AlaskaPassenger
Brown, RobertBarrow, AlaskaPassenger
Burch, Mr. CecilCalgary, CanadaHusband of Ethel BurchPassenger
Burch, Mrs. EthelCalgary, CanadaWife of Cecil BurchPassenger
Carr, RayAnchorage, AlaskaPassenger
Cornelius, Dr. L.LaJolla, CaliforniaFather of Tom CorneliusPassenger
Cornelius, TomLaJolla, CaliforniaSon of Dr. L. CorneliusPassenger
Denney, TomClear, AlaskaPassenger
Doule, Dr. JohnChicago, IllinoisHusband of Mary DoulePassenger
Doule, Mrs. MaryChicago, IllinoisWife of Dr. John DoulePassenger
Drozdaski, JimFort Greeley, AlaskaPassenger
Dunn, Mr. KennethAnchorage, AlaskaHusband of Glenda DunnPassenger
Dunn, Mrs. GlendaAnchorage, AlaskaWife of Kenneth DunnPassenger
Endo, TakehiroTokyo, JapanPassenger
Flood, JamesAnchorage, AlaskaPassenger
Gaskell, JohnSeattle, WashingtonPassenger
Gilbert DeloresSand Point, AlaskaPassenger
Golub, H.Juneau, AlaskaPassenger
Hartland, ShermanSan Diego, CaliforniaFather of Sherman Hartland Jr.Passenger
Hartland, Sherman, Jr.San Diego, CaliforniaSon of Sherman HartlandPassenger
Hasler, Mr. PierceLong Island, New YorkHusband of Arlana HaslerPassenger
Hasler, Mrs. ArlanaLong Island, New YorkWife of Pierce HaslerPassenger
Hazen, DonJuneau, AlaskaPassenger
Hulk, Mr. MartinRenton, WashingtonHusband of VirginiaPassenger
Hulk, Mrs. VirginiaRenton, WashingtonWife of Martin HulkPassenger
Jacobs, Mr. GordonCincinnati, OhioHusband of Grace JacobsPassenger
Jacobs, Mrs. GraceCincinnati, OhioWife of Gordon JacobsPassenger
Jacobson, Mr. DennisJuneau, AlaskaHusband of Christina JacobsonPassenger
Jacobson, Mrs. ChristinaJuneau, AlaskaWife of Dennis JacobsonPassenger
Johnson, Mr. EverettBend, OregonHusband of Alise JohnsonPassenger
Johnson, Mrs. AliseBend, OregonWife of Everett JohnsonPassenger
Kaufman, LorenzKake, AlaskaPassenger
Kelley, StephenFort Greeley, AlaskaPassenger
King, Mr. CarlSeattle, WashingtonHusband of Theresa KingPassenger
King, Mrs. TheresaSeattle, WashingtonWife of Carl KingPassenger
Knickerbocker, H.Juneau, AlaskaPassenger
Kurttila, Mr. Richard G.Edmonds, WashingtonHusband of Betty KurttilaPassenger
Kurttila, Mrs. BettyEdmonds, WashingtonWife of Richard G. KurttilaPassenger
Land, Mr. DickIcy Bay, AlaskaHusband of Elva Land & father of Sandy-Bill LandPassenger
Land, Mrs, ElvaIcy Bay, AlaskaWife of Dick Land & mother of Sandy-Bill LandPassenger
Land, Sandy-BillIcy Bay, AlaskaSon of Dick & Elva LandPassenger
Lane, MinnieKotzebue, AlaskaPassenger
Martin, NinaRenton, WashingtonPassenger
McFall, Mrs. C.Anchorage, AlaskaPassenger
Meeks, LeserAnchorage, AlaskaPassenger
Moran, LeoFort Greeley, AlaskaPassenger
Morris, AlvinNoorvik, AlaskaPassenger
Murphy, JerryJuneau, AlaskaPassenger
Nafus, RobertKyburz, CaliforniaPassenger
Nickelson, ShirleyAnchorage, AlaskaPassenger
Nichols, JudyCordova, AlaskaMother of infant, Steven NicholsPassenger
Nichols, StevenCordova, AlaskaSon of Judy NicholsPassenger
Null, John E.Edmonds, WashingtonPassenger
Null, JoeEdmonds, WashingtonPassenger
Odman, JamesAnchorage, AlaskaPassenger
Oswald, DaveKake, AlaskaPassenger
Ounallah, SalahStockton, CaliforniaPassenger
Park, Mr. EverettPortland, OregonHusband of Hildegard ParkPassenger
Park, Mrs. HildegardPortland, OregonWife of Everett ParkPassenger
Parsons, Mr. WilliamBloomington, MinnesotaHusband of Patricia Parsons & father of Kevin & Greg ParsonsPassenger
Parsons, Mrs. PatriciaBloomington, MinnesotaWife of William Parsons & mother of Kevin & Greg ParsonsPassenger
Parsons, KevinBloomington, MinnesotaParents, William & Patricia Parson & brother of Greg ParsonsPassenger
Parsons, GregBloomington, MinnesotaParents, William & Patricia Parson & brother of Kevin ParsonsPassenger
Pavola, DavidQuillayute, Washington
Peak, CathyCordova, AlaskaMother of infant, Michelle PeakPassenger
Peak, MichelleCordova, AlaskaInfant of Cathy PeakPassenger
Phillips, Mr. WayneAnchorage, AlaskaHusband of Mrs. Wayne PhillipsPassenger
Phillips, Mrs. WayneAnchorage, AlaskaWife of Mr. Wayne PhillipsPassenger
Phillips, ChrisYakutat, AlaskaPassenger
Pollock, Don C.Palmer, AlaskaPassenger
Ramirez, SalvadorDouglas, ArizonaPassenger
Rea, JackelynJuneau, AlaskaPassenger
Reich, Dr. Frederick W.Kake, AlaskaPassenger
Rodeck, Mr. HeroldOakland, CaliforniaHusband of Mrs. Herold RodeckPassenger
Rodeck, Mrs. HeroldOakland, CaliforniaWife of Mr. Herold RodeckPassenger
Rogers, Mrs. MaryJuneau, AlaskaPassenger
Rothberger, PeggyKansas City, KansasPassenger
Sabuca, FrankYakutat, AlaskaPassenger
Sampson, MabelKotzebue, AlaskaPassenger
Sanborn, GordonEdmonds, WashingtonFather of James SanbornPassenger
Sanborn, JamesEdmonds, WashingtonSon of Gordon SanbornPassenger
Schilstra, ClintKake, AlaskaPassenger
Schoen, Mr. FredHilo, HawaiiHusband of Eleanor SchoenPassenger
Schoen, Mrs. EleanorHilo, HawaiiWife of Fred SchoenPassenger
Schuman, Mr. PhilipWestchester, OhioHusband of Rose SchumanPassenger
Schuman, Mrs. RoseWestchester, OhioWife of Philip SchumanPassenger
Smith, JamesAnchorage, AlaskaPassenger
Smith, InezHooper Bay, AlaskaPassenger
Smith, Sherman M.Douglas, ArizonaPassenger
Starkey, AndrewSitka, AlaskaPassenger
Steves, Mr. HaroldEdmonds, WashingtonHusband of Lois StevesPassenger
Steves, Mrs. LoisEdmonds, WashingtonWife of Harold StevesPassenger
Sutherland, KellyHomer, AlaskaPassenger
Thompson, WilsonFort Greeley, AlaskaMilitaryPassenger
Van Ness, RayKake, AlaskaPassenger
Wade, MichaelJuneau, AlaskaPassenger
Ziemer, CurtisPortland, Oregon
Adams, RichardRedmond, WashingtonFlight CaptainCrew
Beach, Mr. Leonard L.Mercer Island, WashingtonFirst Officer & husband of Cathy BeachCrew
Beach, Mrs. CathyMercer Island, WashingtonStewardess & wife of Leonard BeachCrew
Carson, JamesAuburn, WashingtonFlight EngineerCrew
Berg, DeborahSeattle, WashingtonStewardessCrew
Kessner, PattiKent, WashingtonStewardessCrew
Hilla, Patricia A.Seattle, WashingtonStewardessCrew
Donations Welcome

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Written by

Suzanne Downing had careers in business and journalism before serving as the Director of Faith and Community-based Initiatives for Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and returning to Alaska to serve as speechwriter for Gov. Sean Parnell. Born on the Oregon coast, she moved to Alaska in 1969.

Latest comments

  • The FAA extensively checked the FFA navigation equipment and testified the the FAA equipment was working without error. This is in the investigation record.

    • Thank you for this article and tribute to those souls, Suzanne. My aunt and her friends were wilderness hiking in the area of the crash and they heard the impact. They didn’t know that it was a plane crash though.
      .
      After the crash, Alaska retired use of the 1800’s designation for flight numbers.

  • A flight attendant from my high school had a date with her husband to be and asked her flight attendant friend to take the flight for her. She’s been troubled by the tragic consequences ever since.

  • During my almost thirty years in Juneau I practically commuted to work in the rest of Alaska from Juneau every week or two. If you do that for awhile, you get a clock in your head that pretty much tells you where you are. Going to ANC the clock in my head told me we were about at Middleton Island and the nose would be coming down soon. I don’t know the name of the point southbound, but if you did it all the time, you knew when the nose should be coming down.

    Back when you could still socialize at the bar at the Juneau Airport I’ve been a part of a lot of discussions with my pilot friends about the various accidents approaching Juneau. I’m not a pilot, but I have a Merchant Marine Master’s Credential so I can speak navigation with them. Most of my pilot friends think that the flight deck failed to set the NAVAID, localizer I think, to the next beacon after they left Cordova. Consequently, they thought they were much closer to Juneau than they actually were. Something like that happened in at least two other fatals in the same area; they were all further from Juneau than they thought they were and were too low to avoid terrain. I spent a couple of the most miserable hours of my life when the National Guard plane crashed out there trying to find my wife because I thought she might be on it.

    What I’ve never really satisfied myself about with the AS flight was why didn’t somebody just look at their watch? It’s really all about speed, distance, and time, so somebody with some navigational skills or even just somebody who rode that route a lot would know about what time you should be where.

    That said, I’ve been involved in a few ship and airplane accident investigations and the usual explanation is “loss of situational awareness.” Everybody knows that at least before GPS the Juneau approach was demanding, but if you do it several times a month, it is just another day at the office.

    • Really great thought Art .
      Time . How much does weather or airspeed differences due to winds ect change the equation? How many seconds different was the decent than usual? Could there have been typical trip variances that negates the usefulness of such method of estimation?

      • It’s 412 air miles from Cordova to JNU; that’s at most an hour and a half in a B-727 as fast as they flew them back then. Everybody who’s ever had a navigation course of any kind has d x s x t burned into their brain.

        Wind will make a difference if you have a 100kt headwind on your nose on a Seattle to Juneau flight, but not much difference on a hop from Cordova to JNU. I don’t think you get much above 20K feet flying from Cordova to JNU, so the high atmosphere winds aren’t really a factor. No, this one was some sort of instrument failure, which the FAA won’t admit, or it was the usual “loss of situational awareness.

    • The localizer was working fine as stated in the report. Following the crash the FAA flew the route many times and reported no errors in the FAA localizer. I do not know where the bent beam theory came from in that it has never been documented in flight. In order for the crew to know when it was safe to descend they needed to do some simple but critical math based on the information from the localized. The crew had additional test they could have performed to verify their location but it was noted in the report that they did not do so.

    • 1866 had just left Yakutat, not Cordova. Had it been a direct take off to touchdown, you might be correct about checking the time. However, there was a missing Cessna in the JNU area, and 1866 got put into a hold. They circled a few times on their way into JNU trying to help locate the Cessna and then were cleared to JNU. so that added a lot of time to the clock. There was no DME equipment in JNU at the time, which would have prevented this accident. Although there was never an “official” cause of the accident, it is believed that certain weather phenomenon affected the Sisters Island VOR causing erroneous navigation tracking i.e. radio signals indicating what intersection points the flight was tracking ..Pleasant..Barlow..etc.

  • That was a very sad day. A friend of ours dad was due to arrive back from Anchorage and so she went home waiting for dad to arrive. The calls started and of course we all huddled between the Rector’s and walking Douglas waiting for some word. It was so sad. Still hate to fly into Juneau.

  • See the incredible and avoidable carnage caused by air travel!
    We need to ban all airplanes immediately! For the children!
    .
    “”If it saves just one life …. “

  • I heard about a woman who was supposed to be on that flight but took one the night before instead. When her family saw her the next day they thought she was a ghost!

  • Several years later the FAA paid Alaska Airlines insurance carrier, Lloyds, in excess of $1,000,000 for the errors in the Doppler type VOR at Sisters Island, used for this approach.

    • Doc Eide, Sir, thank you for the comment above. I have been told by more then one Alaska Captain that it was common knowledge that Sisters Island V.O.R. was out of calibration at the time of the tragedy. Also I note that Western Airlines was booted out of S.E.. following this tragedy and that Ak Air was given a monopoly, this being before deregulation. Could this have been a way to make Ak Air whole?

  • Well done. Thank you.

  • My Dad was supposed to be on that Alaska Airlines flight to return to Sitka from Yakutat. However, early that a.m. his friend kept up his attempts to knock on the door where my Dad was staying the night. Finally, Dad was awaken and went to the door to see who was knocking. My Dad said “What’s up?” Friend: “Come on, let’s go fishing, you can catch the next day’s flight tomorrow.” Dad: “Let me check with my wife.” He called up Mom, who told him he should go fishing and catch the next day’s flight back to Sitka from Yakutat. He did just that and was not on that fatal flight.

    Glad he decided to go fishing that a.m. (September 4, 1971).

  • I was living in Anchorage at that time and was scheduled to fly from Anchorage to Juneau to take care of some legal paperwork. I received a phone call the evening prior and decided to drive my car to Juneau via Haines and the Ferry. When I arrived in Juneau everyone I met was in shock due to the crash and the number of lives lost. A good friend of mine was enlisted in the Army National Guard and was up on the mountain picking up the carnage and when he saw me downtown Juneau he freaked out. He screamed at me and said that all the time he was up there, he knew he was picking up my remains. I did not have time to call him the evening before and let him know I would be driving. I would have been the 112th casualty and I thank God for the change in my plans and for giving me more days to get it right.
    Rest in Peace and I still pray for all the families that lost their loved ones. James Frost

    • I have a couple of Juneau friends who were young National Guardsmen. They still have nightmares.

  • Thank you for the memory. Sad day. My brothers best friend was on the flight going to his first year of college. I remember the day well. So sad.

  • There is a tribute of sorts in the Juneau Arts and Cultural Center. A series of native murals on the walls.

    After the crash, the (then) National Guard Armory was used as a makeshift morgue.

    One of the guardsmen, a native (Tlingit, I think) felt the building had a bad feel to it with so much death. He set to painting several native totemic clan murals to help balance things out.

    The accuracy of the paintings have been disputed. The good intent has not.

  • My father, Les Paul, was supposed to have been on this flight returning to Juneau from Forest Service business trip in Anchorage. If I remember correctly (I was only 6 at the time) his work finished up early on Friday (Sept 3rd) so he decided to catch a flight home that night instead of the scheduled flight the next day on Saturday (Sept 4th). Our family had just moved to Juneau for dad’s Forest Service job that Summer in 1971, so we had only been in Juneau for maybe a few months before this accident. Still very chilling to think about and all those lives lost. 😢💙

  • AK Air 1866 had a “miner with a pick” logo on the tail. There were four different tail logos back then, including the Eskimo face, and a totem pole. Can’t remember the fourth one. Anybody?

    • Onion Domes of the Russian Orthodox Churches. In Blue, I think.

      I’ve been flying Alaska since 1965.

    • Of course the blue Eskimo survives, though it has changed a bit.

      Then the red miner.

      A green totem pole.

      And purple churches.

      I built them all one time in 1/144th 30 years ago.

      I think the Green Totem was a 90C with the cargo door and bulkheads and the rest were B-727 100s. The old Airfix 1/144th B-727s are still available if you look around. There is also a German Revell 1/144th B-727-100 that you can sometimes find. Like all airliners, they’re a hard build mostly because it is so hard to get decent white paint. I don’t know what it would be like to try to paint one today. The best for me years ago was Floquil plastic barrier and then Floquil railroad “Reefer White,” then let it dry for a long time before you did the Boeing gray and natural metal. Then let it dry for a really long time before you did the decals. Other than the windscreen the best way to do the windows was Microscale clear acrylic painted in.

    • 1866 was in Golden Nugget jet colors..not the 4 that came afterwards. The 4th one was a Russian Orthodox church (purple) The miner was red, the eskimo blue and the totem green

  • I was on that same flight a week before the accident. Leaving for college I always liked the milk run as it flew the Inside Passge… Best view around.

  • In a Ketchikan article on this disaster some years ago, the reporter mentioned that Alaska Airlines had two more passengers listed than bodies recovered. I was one of those passengers and the other was Spec4 Malcolm (Beau) Brown. We were on temporary duty at Fort Greeley and left Alaska on Sept. 4th to return to Fort Hood. This was a last minute change in plans and we gave our tickets for the Juneau trip to Sgt. Leo Moran and Spec. 4 Stephen Kelly, listed on the manifest above. They were friends we had made while assigned to the Arctic Test Center. I stopped off in Indianapolis to see my wife on the way back to Fort Hood. At about this time, fifty years ago today, I answered the phone and was told by Alaska Command that I was one of those lost in the disaster. I wish that Stephen and Leo could have had these fifty years, but God had other plans. Sincerely Jim Moersch, Columbus Indiana

  • I suggest folks read the report on the investigation. It is clear in the report that there was no FAA equipment failure. Also note that the evening before the flight the crew had a late night party. Also at the time of the crash the flight crew was communicating with a Cessna flying south Lynn Canal toward Juneau experiencing vision issues. There was extensive testimony by the FAA scientist that designed the FAA equipment and the FAA team that checked the equipment. There was only one reasonable conclusion and that was pilot error.

    • The crew on Alaska 1866 was in direct communication with a Piper Apache that had just departed Juneau and was in the vicinity of Howard Intersection. 1866 was put into a holding pattern west of the Chugach Range. When given clearance to descend they went to 4500ft. They had cleared Pleasant Intersection, but presumably, they lost their true position and thought they had cleared the Chugach Range. They hadn’t. Nowhere in the NTSB report does it state that pilot error was the cause, or even a contributing factor. Your comment “suggests” that the crew may have been distracted by the “Piper,” and maybe a little dreary from a previous night of partying. My impression is that the holding pattern that they were put into caused the main distraction. Once cleared to proceed to Howard, they thought they were closer to Juneau than they actually were……the reason for their premature descent. They were deep in the clouds and on instruments at 4500ft, yet, 9 miles distant on final approach from where they thought they were.

  • I was on the same flight two days after the crash. I think it was still # 1866. We landed in Juneau on the third try. Nobody on that plane was a happy camper. I was more than willing to skip Juneau and go on to Sitka after the first go around.

  • I remember that day well. I was working as a long distance operator in Juneau. I was called to come in early because an Alaska Airline jet had crashed and the phones had gone crazy with people calling about their loved ones. As the hours passed we watched as the National Guard brought body bags to the lot next door. I felt very impressed with the manner in which my co workers and I managed the massive calls that day and that week. I even got a commendation for helping someone. I am glad that I could be of service at that critical time. All of us were devastated at the loss of life that day. Many prayers were said for the families and friends that week. My heart goes out to them still.

  • I was one of the helicopter aircrew from Coast Guard Air Station, Annette Island, involved in this. The next morning we began ferrying remains from the mountainside to the Alaska Airlines hanger at the Juneau Airport. The Red Dog Saloon was our unofficial “after action debriefing room”. As I recall, our money wasn’t any good there.

    Certainly an unforgettable experience. Because of lessons learned from that disaster, air travel became safer, and continues to improve. Unfortunately those lessons are written in blood.

  • It has taken me a long time to finally read on this, I was supposed to be on this flight, I was at the Airport in Anchorage, ready in line to go back home to Juneau, but I got out of line after talking with another friend, we never had a chance to go shopping, so we left and found out later that plane had Crashed, I was devastated..still in my Memory..

  • My uncle, Jack Null, was on this flight with his young son Joe. They had gone moose hunting in Alaska, had bagged a moose, and were returning home to Seattle. They never arrived. A few days later the moose arrived by train. Our family was devastated by this double loss. I often think of my cousin Joe, denied an entire life, dead at barely 13. And my Uncle Jack, everyone’s favorite, brilliant and funny and musical and kind. He was an engineer at Boeing and died on a plane he helped design. We are still grieving.

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