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Volume 41. No. 1.
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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


It 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
new surroundings.

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 everything.’”

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 have anymore.”

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 this way.”

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.
©Copyright 2004
by Pomona College
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