A year later, friends broken yet resilient

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By the time freshman Jim Ryan moved into his dorm room at Western Washington University's Mathes Hall in 1988, the guys on his floor already had adopted a name for themselves: the Creeps. A female student nauseated by their loud and obnoxious behavior every day inside the dining hall called them that behind their backs. The guys heard about it, liked it and claimed it.

Ryan, a tall and frenetic redhead from Kirkland who would never forgive his parents for sending him to a Catholic high school, fit right in with the lowbrow upperclassmen of the sixth floor.

"He had no idea what he was in for," says Jonathon Sims, one of the original Creeps. "And neither did we."

Ryan thrived within the carefree existence of dorm dorkdom. He would become a ringleader of the Creeps.

Ryan's best friend since elementary school, Michael Bernard, would join him at Western. Bernard was more of a brooder, a calming complement to the chaos that trailed Ryan. He was a guy with a guitar, a demo tape and a plan. Unfortunately, he also had a second-rate singing voice.

During college and in the years after graduation, Ryan and Bernard pulled people into their social circle, growing into as many as 60 friends at any given time. As new friends floated in, old ones drifted out - the classic orbit for any social circle.

From the khaki-shorted, earthy types in Bellingham who liked to venture into the deep woods to the artsy, black-clad crowd in Seattle who preferred smoky bars, the group had dual wings: one hippie, the other hipster. Despite their diversity, they shared great times, laughing, shooting pool and hanging out. Ryan and Bernard were twin balloons at the top of the flow chart.

Today would have been Ryan's 31st birthday. He probably would have planned his own party, something with a theme like: "Never mind the Super Bowl. I'm 31!" He would have been the most valuable player. It would have been fabulous and fun.

His friends can only imagine.

Ryan died one year ago on Alaska Airlines Flight 261, along with Bernard and four other members of their social circle: Russell Ing, Deborah Penna and a married couple, Abby and Ryan Busche. Jim Ryan's parents, Terry and Barbara, and brother Pat also died in the crash. The nine were returning from a 30th-birthday vacation in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, that Jim Ryan had put together, using his job as an Alaska flight attendant to secure discounted tickets for his entourage.

Nine sudden deaths among 88. Eighty-eight lives to be recalled in the coming days as families and friends gather in California and the Pacific Northwest observe the first anniversary of the crash Wednesday.

One year after the crash, the Ryan-Bernard circle is broken and spiraling, yet resilient. Some in the group will honor their six friends today when they dedicate a serene grove of firs and maples near Anacortes. The group collected $5,000 last year to purchase from the city an easement on five acres of forest, ensuring the land will not be developed.

About 50 members of the group, representing both wings and every axis that sprang from them, gathered two weeks after the crash for a wake at the College Inn Pub in Seattle's University District. In the underground bar, generations of college students have toasted to the utter joy of youth, and old college chums have returned to reminisce, wanting to cling to those days.

A plaque dedicated to Ryan, Bernard and Ing hangs over the fireplace at the College Inn. "But the good times are so near, as sitting back and drinking beer," the plaque reads.

An action figure of Shaggy of Scooby-Doo cartoon fame is attached to the wall above the plaque with duct tape. Ryan's nickname in high school was Shaggy. It's a funny way to pay tribute to a funny guy who could pluck an obscure cartoon reference from any situation. Bernard had adopted the same wonderfully annoying habit.

In the past year, the friends have gained strength by revering the six who died: "Lost Creeps," as they are described in a Web site that Sims created to safeguard their memory and help the group stay in contact.

"I will try to honor you by not being overly distracted by your leaving," Sims writes in an essay he posted to the site. "But it's so hard."

Artwork was a magnet

Hanging side by side on the wall of Collin and Aimee Tuck's living room in North Seattle are two Polaroid photos of the same calla lily transferred onto paper - the artwork of Abby Busche. On other walls, Russell Ing's abstract photographs are displayed.

"I'm into collecting all of my friends' artwork," says Collin Tuck, an aspiring artist himself. Art drew many of these friends together, several having majored in it at Western.

"They all were artistic, creative, intelligent young people with a strong value of friendship," says Jan Penna, mother of Deborah Penna, whose paintings, drawings and prints awed her friends. "They were also a very curious and alive group. They were very fortunate they found each other."

Fred Miller, father of Abby Busche, says his daughter's circle of friends was family to her - a designation he is willing to share.

"If you were to have asked Abby what the group meant to her, she would have said that they were like jewels out there on the beach, and she was determined to pick up those agates," he says.

A couple of weeks after the crash, Collin Tuck cut off all of his hair - and there was lots of it - thinking, rather abstractly at the time, that he would use the long strands to somehow memorialize his friends in an artistic way. His creative mind went to work, fashioning dolls made from his hair woven around wire frames. Each doll an effigy to a lost friend.

Within each doll, Tuck folded in objects that conveyed the character of each friend. For Bernard, a guitar string. For Ing, a photo negative. For Deborah Penna, paintbrushes. For Abby Busche, art paper.

The Tucks brought the effigies to Burning Man, a primal gathering of spiritual renewal held every summer in the Nevada desert. There, they affixed the dolls to stakes and posted them in the sand. The effigies of Abby and Ryan Busche were conjoined and attached to a post.

On the final day of the event, when revelers are encouraged to toss things into communal bonfires, the Tucks retreated to where they had put the dolls the week before. They doused the wooden stakes with flammable liquids and threw fire into a strong wind. The dolls would not ignite. It was as if the effigies were resisting going out that way. They wanted to be part of the party.

"So we had to bring the effigies to the community burn piles," Collin Tuck says. "We said goodbye to each of them and threw them into the fire."

The Tucks gave the effigies the standard group toast of the Creeps: "To Hemingway!"

Why Hemingway?

"I don't know why," Collin Tuck says. Like a lot of things with good friends, it just is.

A passage to India

In another attempt at an ideal tribute, Molly Laster took a trip in October to Varnasi, a holy city in India. Those who die there, legend has it, achieve immediate nirvana. Those who bathe there in the Ganges River cleanse themselves of all sin.

Laster, who lives in Seattle, is Jim Ryan's ex-girlfriend. They dated in college and again after, interrupted by a four-year hiatus. The last two or three years of Ryan's life were chilly between the pair. But they had begun making overtures to be friends again.

It was inevitable they would run into each other. They had the same friends, including Bernard, Ing, Penna and the Tucks. No romantic breakup could pull Laster from the social circle that Ryan forged. She was taken with Ryan and his buddies as soon as she arrived at Western. They were suburban kids, but something was askew. For one thing, they had long hair.

"They didn't take themselves too seriously," she recalls. "That's what I liked most about them."

Laster and Ryan saw each other at Bernard's 30th-birthday party in fall 1999 and talked for more than an hour after the party broke up.

They danced together at a friend's wedding two months later, the last time she saw him.

In Varnasi at dawn, a guide rowed Laster in a dinghy to the middle of the Ganges. She wrote notes to her friends, folded them into origami boats, filled each with flower petals and set them upon the water to float down the river. The first paper boat, however, got sucked under the rowboat, coming out the other side flattened but still buoyant. Like at Burning Man, the ceremony didn't go quite right. Yet so appropriate.

"I figure that first boat was Jim's," Laster says. "He would have found that funny."

Log-cabin memories

Saif Hakim got sucked into the group about six years ago by Bernard, whom he had met at work.

"They were fun to be around," says Hakim, of Kirkland. "Everybody really cared about everyone else. After just knowing them a year, they struck me as the kind of people I would know forever."

Hakim and Bernard hit the Seattle music clubs together, where they were most comfortable, but also rough it each year on a camping trip.

In June 1999, some of the friends went to Spencer Spit State Park on Lopez Island. The weather was better than perfect, and Bernard insisted on spending the night inside a small abandoned log cabin at the end of the spit.

He dubbed it "Jebediah's Cabin," an allusion to Jebediah Springfield, the founder of the fictional town of television's "The Simpsons." The temperature dipped at night, however, and Bernard fled to less-rustic quarters with his pals.

Last summer, Hakim and other friends returned to the park to remember Bernard. A few ventured to the cabin and engraved Bernard's initials into one of the logs.

Of friends and nightmares

Tom Shannon, one of the sixth-floor dorm Creeps and Bernard's ex-roommate, awoke from a nightmare before dawn Tuesday. He had been pretty good at bottling everything up until then.

"There has been a lot of denial on my part," he said the afternoon after the nightmare. "The level of anxiety and sadness that I felt the night of the crash - it feels like it's all coming back. This weekend, the anniversary, is forcing me to deal with it."

In the past year, he has avoided his friends. They conjure up too many memories, too much sadness.

Last spring, Shannon contacted the agent for Bruce Springsteen before the rocker's concert at the Tacoma Dome and asked that a song be dedicated in Bernard's memory.

Shannon had purchased a ticket to the show for himself, his girlfriend and Bernard while Bernard was in Mexico with Ryan and the gang. Bernard's seat at the concert stayed empty as Springsteen dedicated the song "Bobby Jean" to the victims of Flight 261.

It was Shannon's way of taking care of Bernard. He is now starting to take care of himself.

On the morning after the nightmare, Shannon wrote an e-mail to Hakim - an acknowledgment that he needed the company of his old crew again.

"Some of us got the wind knocked out of us," Shannon says. "There are scars. I realize now that if we split apart, nothing is going to heal."

Nights on the town

Spontaneity was Jim Ryan's way of keeping friends in touch. He would have a layover in Seattle, call the gang and demand that they join him for a night on the town. It was usually a work night for his buddies, but as far as his schedule was concerned, it was the weekend.

Sometimes he'd take the occasion to head up to Bellingham to hang out with Jonathon Sims, fellow Creep and his former roommate.

The other social director of the group was Abby Busche. Their persistence must be replaced if the social circle is to have staying power. Sims is doing his part with the Web site, www.thecreeps.net.

One year after the crash, Sims thinks about a holiday party in 1999 when he sat down with Bernard and grilled him about life, trying to get his friend's defenses down in a way he never had before. It was the last time he would see Bernard.

"I was like, `Mike, how are you?' and he would say, `OK,' and I'd say, `That doesn't work for me,' " Sims says.

He thinks about a deal he made with Ing. He would give him a signed copy of a draft of his first novel in exchange for one of Ing's creations of art. The deal never was consummated.

"I've felt very guilty about that since the accident," Sims says. "I never did tell Russ that I had given up on my novel."

In the past year, Sims has not had the energy or clear mind to restart his book. But he thinks he will in time. It takes time.

For now, the friends still grieve, some more privately than others, some better healed than others. For many, the broken circle comes full circle this week.

Stuart Eskenazi can be reached at 206-464-2293 or at seskenazi@seattletimes.com.