A Japanese woman says that she sent D.C. Mayor Marion Barry an unsolicited check for $20,000 almost 15 months ago to pay for a monument she wants to have erected in Washington for a hero of the 1982 Air Florida crash, but that since then she has been unable to find out what happened to the check.
Bank records show that the Fuji Bank certified check, made out to Barry personally, never was cashed, she said. But, she said, the mayor has not responded to her about the check, even though she has sent him six letters by registered mail seeking clarification.
"Really, I don't understand why he doesn't answer my letter," said Waka Sato, 47, a fashion designer and owner of a boutique in the luxury Prince Hotel in Tokyo, whose customers include the wife of a former Japanese prime minister. "If the answer is no, I want to get a letter back saying no. I also want the check back so I can think of another way to get the monument built."
Annette Samuels, the mayor's press secretary, confirmed yesterday that the letters had arrived, but she said that the $20,000 check cannot be located.
"We can't find it," Samuels said, adding that the letters "unfortunately were not responded to in a timely manner . . . . We're going to respond to her and try to find the check."
For four years, Sato has sought to honor the man who emerged alive after the Air Florida 737 jet plunged into the Potomac River at the 14th Street bridge on Jan. 13, 1982, but died in the freezing waters after passing a helicopter lifeline to others.
"This beautiful deed as a human being, I believe, represents so great a love that will never again appear heretofore," she said in a letter dated Oct. 25, 1984, which she said she sent to Barry with the check.
"Now, what I wish to entreat you is that . . . you build a monument on a side of the Potomac to worship his soul and his beautiful deed to be remembered in the days to come," she wrote in the letter.
Sato said that she has no links to the crash, in which 74 people aboard the plane and four people in vehicles on the bridge died, other than having been deeply moved by news accounts of the man's sacrifice. His identity was unclear at the time of the crash, but President Reagan, citing the findings of an investigation, later identified him as Arland D. Williams Jr., a 46-year-old Federal Reserve System bank examiner from Atlanta, and Reagan honored him posthumously in a White House ceremony.
Constructing monuments to acts of bravery is relatively common in Japan. Also, people here traditionally believe that the souls of the dead need proper recognition and ceremony from the living in order to achieve peace.
However, Sato's relentless pursuit of the idea of a monument and her unsolicited contribution, which she said represents a major part of her savings, are unusual for Japanese society.
Sato said that she began her quest to commemorate Williams within days of the crash, even before he had been identified. She approached the U.S. Embassy in Tokyo and offered to donate $1,000 to be used to buy flowers. Her offer was declined.
In a letter dated Jan. 22, 1982, Sato wrote to Reagan, declaring, "I saw in this gentleman the real beauty of America." She enclosed a check for $1,000 to be used to make an offering of wreaths.
The check was returned with a letter bearing Reagan's signature, according to Sato. A separate note from a White House official thanked her but said the White House was unable to accept gifts of money.
Sato then decided to approach The Washington Post. In May 1982, she sent a check for $10,000 to Executive Editor Benjamin C. Bradlee. He returned it, noting that the man had not been identified. She sent another $10,000 in March 1983, which also was returned.
She made a final attempt with The Post in May 1983, sending Bradlee $20,000. He sent that money back, too, and suggested that she contact the American consul in Japan to make arrangements.
Sato said she then sent money to Barry. As time went by with no response, she began writing letters of inquiry. Letters dated Jan. 27, 1985, and April 12, 1985, elicited no response. In November and December last year, she said, she sent four more letters to Barry but none was answered.
She provided a reporter with photocopies of Japanese postal receipts showing that registered letters had been sent to the mayor on the day that she reports having sent the check and indicating that U.S. postal authorities acknowledged receipt. She also showed a copy of an application for a certified check made out to Barry.
Sato showed copies of postal registration and confirmation of receipt documents for most of the later letters, as well.
Meanwhile, in June 1984 she built a monument in Japan at a cost of about $1,500 to honor Williams, she said. Located at the mountain home of a friend, it is a black marble cross standing about 10 feet high, bearing the words in English:
"In the Memory of
Arland D. Williams Jr.
A MAN OF SUBLIME AND HOLY LOVE
who laid down his life so that others could live.
January 13th 1982. Florida airline accident in Washington D.C."
The message also appears in Japanese.
Sato said she has taken an interest in another act of heroism. Every year, she said, using another name, she sends about $250 to the family of a young night school student who died in 1980 while trying to save a woman who had jumped into a Japanese river in a suicide attempt.
Sato provided a name and number for the family. When called, a woman who identified herself as the mother of the student said that money arrives from a benefactor at each anniversary of his death.
Sato said she never has approached any task with as much devotion as her fight for the monument and said she is baffled that her attempt at philanthropy has been rebuffed so many times.
"The hearts of human beings are the same around the world," she said in an interview. "So I cannot understand why my feelings are so difficult to convey."