UPDATE: Four medical volunteers killed in Mexico plane crash were on aid mission

Andrew Theil
Andrew Theil

Mexican authorities say four people on a humanitarian mission from San Luis Obispo County were killed when their plane crashed in Baja California, news media there reported Saturday.

Roger Lyon of Cayucos piloted the plane, with Drs. James Thornton and Graciela Sarmiento — both of Arroyo Grande — and medic and Cal Poly student Andrew Thiel aboard.

Rescuers found the wreckage Saturday after the plane was reported missing Friday, the director of the state of Baja California’s Civil Protection Agency told the Diario Rotativo newspaper.

The paper reports that the wreckage was found about 25 miles outside Ensenada and just over 90 miles from Tijuana.

The team was on its way to San Quintín — a small town in a coastal valley about 90 miles south of Ensenada — with the group Flying Samaritans.

The news website Ensenada.net reported that their plane was last tracked by a military installation south of the city, but had lost contact after 7:30 p.m. Friday. Local news media reported dense fog in the mountainous area.

They were aboard a 1973 Beechcraft Bonanza A36 with a tail number of N212DB, authorities told Diario Rotativo.

The Federal Aviation Administration says that plane was registered to Lyon.

A North Coast attorney since 1975, Lyon campaigned for preserving that area’s undeveloped coastal lands, more recently working on the deal to preserve the 82,000-acre Hearst Ranch in San Simeon.

He had also served as legal counsel to the services districts in Cambria and San Simeon, and for a time was a school board member.

Stephen Hearst, vice president of Hearst Corp. and great-grandson of the late media magnate William Randolph Hearst, said Saturday that he still hadn’t gotten confirmation of the death of his attorney and longtime friend.

“It would be a devastating blow for many, many people, including me,” Hearst said Saturday afternoon.County Supervisor Bruce Gibson confirmed that Lyon was to have left early Friday, taking the doctors to a very remote area of Mexico.

“Roger is an excellent pilot, instrument-rated. His plane was well-equipped and well-maintained,” Gibson said. “I talked to him Friday morning, and he knew it was going to be foggy.”

Lyon and his wife, Susan, owned and operated Cottontail Creek Ranch, raising avocados and oranges and running a bed-and-breakfast “ranch stay.” They were involved in many charitable and nonprofit endeavors. He had two sons, Michael and Kristopher.

As a young man, Lyon had been a successful, competitive swimmer. He was well known on the North Coast for being athletic and for being a windsurfer.

Surgeon made trips

James Thornton, a plastic surgeon whose office was in San Luis Obispo, served with Flying Samaritans for 20 years, said his wife, Christine. He would make two trips a year — one in April and again in October.

“It was something he loved to do,” she said Saturday night from her Arroyo Grande home. “He took great satisfaction helping people who had no other options.”

Thornton treated people with debilitating problems, such as cleft palates, serious burns or clubbed hands, Christine Thornton said.

He would start work early on a Saturday and continue until there were no more patients for that day, sometimes going until midnight, she explained.

Thornton had two daughters, Elizabeth, an attorney in Washington, D.C., and 17-year-old Alexandra, who attends Mission College Prep High School in San Luis Obispo.

His wife said Thornton was always aware of the risk he took traveling to far-flung towns in Mexico. “He did not like the plane rides. He used to tell me they were really bumpy. He knew the risk, but he was committed to going.”

Volunteer at A.G.

Graciela Sarmiento — who practiced at Community Health Centers of the Central Coast’s Oceano office — was known for often volunteering her time and services to help out the Arroyo Grande High School’s athletic program.

Arroyo Grande High Athletic Director Dwight MacDonald recalls her as a very “kind and generous person.“It’s a tragedy. She was a wonderful person who volunteered her time to help others,” MacDonald added. “She was going down there to do a good deed and help people out. It’s just so sad.”

Med school ahead

Andrew Thiel was a biology student at Cal Poly, according to its student database. His father, Mark, said his son was going to attend medical school soon.

“He wouldn’t have been going on this trip if he didn’t care about people,” Mark Thiel said from the family’s home in the small town of Linden, east of Stockton.

“He wanted to do this. He left behind a very loving and caring large family and siblings. He’s going to be greatly missed.”

Thiel was a four-sport athlete and valedictorian at Linden High School.

“He was anything anybody asked him to be, did everything anyone asked him to do, and more,” Mark Thiel said.

Mark Thiel said that his other son, Garrett, was originally scheduled to go on the trip with his brother, but decided instead to go in November.