“I’ve picked up things over the years. To me, it means a lot that people remember my mother and keep wanting to read about her.”

PENSACOLA — On Christmas Eve in 1987, 10-year-old Hope Harris was tucked into bed in her home in Milton, awaiting the following morning’s arrival of Santa Claus, when her 8-year-old brother, Matthew, came in and woke her up.

“Hope, Daddy wants to talk to you,” she recalled him saying.

The little girl followed her brother into the master bedroom, where her father, J.C. Harris, was sitting. Hope remembered it looked as if he had been crying.

J.C. was dying from advanced lung cancer. His jaw often locked up because of chemo and radiation treatment. Hope, as she often did, massaged his jaw with her small hands to loosen his mouth so he was able to speak.

Finally, after a long pause, J.C. managed to tell his daughter: “Hope, your mom is gone. She died in a plane crash.”

Hope paused for a moment, then said “okay” and went back to bed.

 

‘I just called to say I love you’

Hope’s mother, Deanna Atkins, had been the sole casualty of a Christmas Eve plane crash in Miramar Beach. She was 31 years old.

It took a while for young Hope to grasp what that meant.

The last words Hope remembers hearing her mother speak were lyrics to the Stevie Wonder song "I Just Called To Say I Love You."

“She called me on Christmas Eve before they took off,” said Hope, who now lives in Pensacola. “I must have had some hard feelings about her not being there, and it must have showed 'cause she sang that Stevie Wonder song to me:

I just called to say I love you

I just called to say how much I care

I just called to say I love you

And I mean it from the bottom of my heart.

"That was the last of her voice I remember hearing. I don’t even remember if I told her I loved her.”

The plane crash occurred about 1 p.m. Christmas Eve. Hope didn’t find out until more than seven hours later.

The next morning, Hope said she remembers the moment the gravity of her mother’s death began to sink in.

“I remember Christmas morning getting up and opening my presents like everything was okay,” she said. “I got this brand new BMX bike, it was the coolest bike in the neighborhood. But I took it out riding and all anybody could focus on was, ‘Oh, your poor mother is dead.’ Every house I passed, the parents would say how sorry they were.

“I remember thinking I wished everybody would just shut up.”

 

The Christmas Eve crash

Deanna had been in Merritt Island visiting her brother, Les Sanders. She flew to Florida's Atlantic coast in a single-engine Cessna piloted by her friend, Timothy Butler.

“I believe my mom, Timothy and Les all knew each other pretty well,” Hope said. “Milton is a pretty small town, and it was a lot smaller back then than it is now.”

According to news accounts, Butler and Deanna were flying home Christmas Eve and had planned to land at an airstrip in Navarre. However, when weather conditions quickly deteriorated and a dense fog descended over the area, Butler apparently decided to land at the airport in Destin.

Butler was circling the Cessna, waiting for his turn to land, when he flew the plane straight into the 19th floor of the Hidden Dunes Resort condominium building.

No one was in condo unit 1901 at the time of the crash. Rescue workers told the Daily News they thought the plane crash was a hoax until they arrived at the scene.

“As the fog cleared, I could see what had happened,” then-Walton County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Bill Fowler told reporters in 1987. “I could see a body hanging out.”

Butler was seriously injured, but managed to climb out of the plane, shimmy down a wing lodged into the side of the building and be pulled to safety through an 18th story window.

Deanna was killed instantly.

She left behind her husband, Jerry Atkins, and four children: Hope, Matthew, 5-year-old Shawna and 3-year-old Craig.

Hope said her mother is buried in an unmarked grave in Milton next to Jerry’s parents. She doesn’t recall going to her funeral.

 

‘Not fair to judge her now’

Jerry Atkins did not make the trip. Neither had any of her four children. Hope and Matthew lived with their father, J.C., Craig lived with Jerry and little Shawna lived with adoptive parents.

Shawna is 35 now. She said she still gets recognized around Milton by people who say she looks just like her mother, to which she just shrugs.

“I only really have like one or two memories of her, and I have a couple pictures and that’s all I know,” she said. “I know I look like her. All the time I get, ‘Oh my God, you look just like your mom.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh great, what can you tell me about her?’ ”

The answer, she said, is usually “nothing.”

Hope said she doesn’t remember much about her mother. None of her siblings do, because they were all so small when she died.

“She was a flawed human being, but every person I’ve ever talked to said she would give you the shirt off her back,” Hope said. “But from my side of it, I saw her flaws ... she should have been at home with her kids on Christmas Eve. She made certain choices that I, as a parent now, wouldn’t agree with.

“But she’s not here to answer for herself,” Hope added. “I don’t think it’s right or fair to judge her now.”

 

‘Always say I love you’

Hope’s father, J.C., died five months after the crash. She was sent to live in a home for girls in Alabama.

Hope joined the Navy after high school, had a daughter of her own at 21 and spent 11 years in the military before leaving the service and working various jobs. She now raises her daughter in Pensacola while she takes classes and works freelance assistant jobs.

Every so often Hope researches the events that led to her mother's death. She found an online forum several years ago of people talking about witnessing plane crashes, and connected with a man who said he saw the crash and that it sparked his fascination with aviation. Several years ago in Las Vegas, Hope said she was on a bus and heard a first responder in the back talking about the very crash that killed Deanna.

She also said she reads the news accounts that come out every so often about the fateful crash nearly 30 years ago.

“I’ve picked up things over the years,” Hope said. “To me, it means a lot that people remember my mother and keep wanting to read about her.”

Hope says despite her circumstances and being orphaned at a young age, she doesn’t live with regret or despair. She said she is influenced by the crash in several ways.

“I think I am more aware of mortality. ... It made me very aware of how people view me and what people think of me,” she said. “Will people remember me? What will they remember?”

She said the realization she never got to say goodbye to her mother also sticks with her.

“I remember thinking that I did not tell my mother that I loved her. I did not tell her goodbye,” Hope said. “One time, my daughter was mad at me and wanted to leave the house. I said, ‘I love you’, like I say so frequently to her, and she didn’t say it back. I said again, ‘I love you’, and she said, ‘Ugh. I love you too, mom.’

“I said, ‘Cora, you should tell people how you feel about them, because this time you walk out the door might be the last time you ever get to tell people how you feel about them,’ ” she said. “Always say I love you.”

 

AUDIO with former Daily News photographer about the crash in 1987: