Beyond the Fire Line
Claremont may be part of one of the world’s largest
urban centers, but Professor Peter Thielke found its
reaction to catastrophe to be like that of a small town.
By Michael Balchunas
was their first house, tucked into a corner lot just east of Indian
Hill Boulevard in northern Claremont. In the cool of the evening,
neighbors would come out to walk their dogs, and the chut-chut-chut of
lawn sprinklers would be about as noisy as it would get.
Peter G. Thielke, assistant professor of philosophy at the College since
the fall of 2001, had moved into the single-story home with his wife,
Sheri Pym, and their toddler Paige in August 2003. They liked the house,
the neighborhood, and the city. Thielke, who grew up in Seattle, where
the popular image of Los Angeles commonly evokes scorn, even found
himself warming to this little corner of Southern California.
“We had looked for a house sporadically earlier in the year,” says
Thielke, “and this one was really nice. It was a custom house, and it
was the first one that went up in that subdivision. It had a comfortable
feel. It was a solid house, much nicer than anything else we had seen.”
The original owner, a director of the Rancho Santa Ana Botanic Garden,
was a devoted landscaper. A copse of evergreens sheltered the lot on the
south and west sides like a towering green wall. A red-brick stairway
led up between gray boulders to a welcoming, pine-shaded entryway.
Through the late summer and fall, the family settled in, became
acquainted with neighbors, and adjusted to life in their
The end was sudden and terrifying.
About 4:30 p.m., on Sunday, Dec. 14, 2003, Thielke, his wife and
daughter returned home after spending the afternoon at a neighbor’s open
house in Claremont. It had been partly a holiday celebration and partly
a way to welcome the family to the neighborhood. After the party, Paige,
21 months old, was tired, but Peter and Sheri elected not to put her
down for a nap in the nursery. Sheri, who works for the Justice
Department as an assistant U.S. attorney in Riverside, thought she might
pay some bills. Instead, they decided to watch Finding Nemo, Paige’s
favorite movie, and sat down together in the family room.
Eighty miles away, music composer and pilot Steven Kaplan powered his
1981 Cessna 421C down the runway at Camarillo Airport at 4:53 p.m. As it
gained altitude, he turned the twin-engine propeller plane toward Cable
Airport in Upland. Kaplan, a Malibu resident, was flying alone. He was
to serve as guest conductor for a holiday music program at Etiwanda High
School in Rancho Cucamonga on Monday night.
At 5:27 p.m., Kaplan’s plane crashed into the Thielke house.
A Cessna 421C with a full payload weighs nearly 4 tons, has a wingspan
of more than 40 feet and carries more than 200 gallons of high-octane
aviation fuel. As the plane smashed through the roof, it apparently
severed a natural gas line in the attic. A fireball instantly rolled
through the house, bypassing only the family room, where the family was
sitting, and the garage.
“It still seems surreal,” says Thielke. “We really had no warning. We
heard some strange sounds maybe five seconds before the explosion. I saw
the fireball go through, and there was a huge explosion, very loud. I
remember thinking at first that maybe the furnace had exploded. We had
no idea a plane had hit. There was fire everywhere but where we were. We
scrambled out through the garage as quickly as we could. By the time we
got out and across the street, the flames were already pretty high. I
didn’t have any shoes on, and I remember being very cold, and feeling
wobbly in the legs. Either I told Sheri or she told me, ‘There goes
Almost everything. Neighbors got the cars out before the flames reached
the garage. From the family room, Peter and Sheri later salvaged most of
their books, and from the kitchen, some pots and pans and other unmelted
kitchenware. From the washing machine came a load of soggy clothing.
“Everything else was pretty much gone,” says Thielke. “There was
enormous relief that we’d gotten out almost entirely unharmed, tempered
by this recognition that most everything was lost. My wife had tons of
photo albums. Those are gone. There’s a sense of not immediately
realizing exactly what you’ve lost, the parts of your life you don’t
What happened next left a deep impression. “People were enormously
generous,” he says. “That first night and in the weeks afterward, people
were bringing us clothes, care packages and household things. A couple
had been driving by on Baseline Road on their way to Altadena or
someplace fairly distant. They saw the crash and stopped. Then they went
home, got some stuff and brought it all the way back the same night.
“We received help from neighbors, friends and strangers. People at the
College were great. The administration got us a house on College Avenue,
which was enormously helpful. It happened so quickly, there was no
hesitation, and we really appreciate it.”
After the fire, the plane wreckage was removed by a company that
specializes in such work. When he talked with the workers, Thielke
expected to hear that they typically dealt with one or two crash
recoveries a month. He was surprised that the figure was on the order of
several per week.
This is Southern California, after all, known both for its sunny skies
and for the earthquakes, wildfires and mudslides that offer the rest of
the nation a regular helping of disaster TV. The truth, however, is that
in the Los Angeles area, aircraft crashes have taken more lives over the
past century than all of those other causes combined. Of course,
passengers and pilots make up the vast majority of victims, and the
likelihood of a particular person on the ground being hit by a crashing
aircraft remains exceedingly low, but the facts also point to a growing
concern about the crowded skies of the L.A. basin. Air traffic in the
area has grown enormously in the past 50 years, and airports that once
were surrounded by citrus groves are now islands in a sea of houses.
“The airspace is just like a highway,” the Federal Aviation
Administration says on its Website, “…too much traffic.”
Steven Kaplan, the pilot whose plane struck the Thielke family’s house,
was killed in the crash. He was an award-winning composer for film and
television. His music was heard on the shows Jeopardy and Wheel of
Fortune. The cause of the crash is still being investigated. During
Kaplan’s approach to Cable Airport, which is about 3 miles southeast of
the Thielke family’s property, an air traffic controller noticed an
unexpected turn to the left, according to a preliminary report by the
National Transportation Safety Board. The controller told the pilot that
he was headed toward “high terrain”—the San Gabriel Mountains—and
advised him to turn right and climb. Kaplan acknowledged the
transmission, but radar and radio contact with the plane were lost
minutes later. Witnesses on the ground said they heard a low-flying
plane, and heard an engine sputter, smooth out, and sputter again before
going quiet. In the darkness, they saw the airplane’s lights still
glowing as it plunged toward the house.
Peter Thielke says he feels deep sympathy for the pilot. “I can’t
imagine what it must have been like to spend the last moments of your
life going down in a plane,” he says.
Since the crash, he has been a bit more conscious of the sound of
aircraft overhead. He thinks more often of the implacability of chance
and fate. He points to a newspaper photo showing Paige’s changing table
in flames. “I see that picture and I just think…it was really a matter
of luck we were all in the same room,” he says. “It could have been so
much worse. We were all in the one right spot in the house.”
By July, seven months after the crash, the meticulous course of
insurance adjustment was mostly complete, and Thielke and his wife were
looking forward to building a new home on the cleared lot. Construction
was expected to take another seven or eight months. “It all worked out
in the end, but it’s been a very long process,” he says. “The insurers
wanted lists of enormous specificity, including such things as the
number of toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste, and the extent of use.
It’s a headache to try to remember every little thing.”
The aftermath of the crash also produced an unexpectedly positive
feeling, Thielke adds. “It was an enormous hassle to get everything
reestablished,” he says, “but on the other hand, it’s been somewhat nice
to kind of simplify things and to remove a bunch of clutter from our
lives—just to have it all gone at once. Not that I’d recommend doing it
The nature of the disaster has made it easier to move on, Thielke says.
“Sheri and I have talked about how it was one of those things that
neither of us could have prevented, so there’s no sense of recrimination
about it, as there might be if, for example, it was a situation in which
I’d forgotten to turn off the stove. There was no feeling of ‘If only I
had done something differently.’”
If there is anything revelatory about the crash, it has to do with
compassion and community, Thielke says.
“In a way, it drove home how different Claremont is, at least in my
mind, from the Los Angeles stereotype,” he says. “This was more like
what I imagined a small-town response to a catastrophe would be like. We
got to see and experience the attraction of living in a small,
tight-knit community, antithetical to the usual image of the L.A. area
as a sprawling, impersonal, suburban morass. Not to make it sound like
we were cynics before, but the response was unexpected. It was amazing
how generous people were.”
-- Michael Balchunas is a freelance writer living in Claremont.