Top 10 stories of 2010: No. 4: Death of Flying Samaritans in plane crash shakes county

The countdown continues for the Top 10 Stories of 2010 as selected by The Tribune's editorial staff. The series publishes every day, culminating New Year’s Day with the top story.

In mid-October, San Luis Obispo County was stunned and saddened when four of its residents, on a mission to help the less fortunate, died when their small plane slammed into the base of a fog-shrouded mountain in Baja California.

Pilot Roger Lyon, Dr. James Thornton, Dr. Graciela Sarmiento and Cal Poly student Andrew Thiel were part of a medical aid team called The Flying Samaritans.

Mexican officials reported that they had lost contact with the four volunteers Oct. 15 as the small private plane headed from San Luis Obispo to San Quintin, a small town in a coastal valley about 90 miles south of Ensenada.

As the plane neared its destination, a dense fog rolled into the area.

The following day, crews discovered the wreckage of the 1973 Beechcraft Bonanza A36 plane at the bottom of a 3,900-foot hillside.

The Flying Samaritans, a nonprofit organization, is made up exclusively of volunteers, who offer medical assistance and life-saving treatments to people in rural Mexico.

The four people on board were later remembered by the community as a selfless group who lived to help others less fortunate.

Roger Lyon, from Cayucos, had volunteered with The Flying Samaritans since 1982.

A North Coast attorney, Lyon campaigned to preserve the county’s undeveloped coastal lands. He also worked on a deal to preserve the 82,000-acre Hearst Ranch in San Simeon.

Dr. James Thornton of Arroyo Grande had served with Flying Samaritans since 1985. He took two trips a year with the organization and never missed a clinic in his 25 years of service.

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

Dr. Graciela Sarmiento of Arroyo Grande practiced medicine at the Community Health Centers of the Central Coast office in Oceano and at Arroyo Grande Community Hospital for five years. She worked daily with the poor, uninsured and homeless at CHC’s Oceano clinic.

The CHC Facilities Department, which plans to open an expanded Oceano medical facility, will name it in honor of Sarmiento.

Also on board the aircraft was Cal Poly student and medic Andrew Thiel of Linden in San Joaquin County.

Thiel, a biology student at Cal Poly, was a four-sport athlete and valedictorian at Linden High School.

The Flying Samaritans Gold Coast Chapter, based in San Luis Obispo, consists of 175 members. The group continues to provide life-

saving medical treatments and education to patients with a variety of health issues who live in remote locations of Mexico.

The Gold Coast Chapter holds clinics in Mexico every month except for December.

The next clinic is set for January. A 15- to 20-person team will fly to San Quintin to take part in a general surgery clinic.