Sister-in-law of Tahoe man one of victims |

Sister-in-law of Tahoe man one of victims

Jim Grant/Tahoe TribuneDonald Ford views the flag flying at half-staff at the American Legion Hall Sunday.

South Tahoe High School track coach Dominique Westlake is struggling to cope with losing sister-in-law Kalpana Chawla in the fatal Columbia space shuttle explosion.

Westlake, who returned home Sunday afternoon from a women’s basketball referee job to make plans for a family gathering in Houston, recalled the painful discovery Saturday morning.

His mother called him about 7:30 a.m., more than an hour after the shuttle broke apart upon re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere.

“I was in shock. I couldn’t believe it. But it’s a part of life. Death can pretty much happen to you at anytime,” said Westlake, a Lake Tahoe Marathon record holder and one of 21 inspirational residents to run the Olympic torch through South Lake Tahoe a year ago.

The tragic ending to the shuttle research mission proved a dramatic departure from Westlake’s mood while witnessing Chawla’s launch from Florida more than two weeks ago.

“It was a magnificent event,” he said.

It was the second time he had seen the shuttle takeoff with the India native aboard. Chawla had been an astronaut since 1994. She was married to J.P. Harrison, Westlake’s brother.

He describes their relationship “as close as we could be.”

Westlake said he’s gained much comfort from family members and friends who left at least 30 messages of solace and support on his answering machine Sunday. He has also drawn strength from his faith.

“As a believer in Christ, I try to live life to the fullest,” he said.

Westlake’s Sierra Community Church pastor shared his sentiments.

“There’s something about tragedy — it’s the human element that I believe God made us to feel all things like this,” Dan Wilvers said after his Sunday morning service. “It touches a chord. We come together so we can mourn.”

Wilvers asked the congregation to say a prayer for the astronauts’ families and acknowledged the church was personally affected by the tragedy.

When Wilvers saw television images of the explosion on Saturday, it didn’t dawn on him that he was witnessing a live broadcast. He thought he was watching a show highlighting the Challenger space shuttle explosion of Jan. 28, 1986.

The pastor recalled Westlake’s telling him of seeing his sister-in-law going up into space.

“I wish I could give words to it. It really profoundly affected me,” the minister said of his reaction once he realized Westlake’s loss.

Over the last year, the church congregation has endured much tragedy, which has a way of bringing people together to mourn, clergy and therapists agree.

But the circumstances play a vital role in our emotional maturity as human beings, marriage and family therapist Ann Swallow said Sunday.

“This is something that is so important to us. I believe a window of opportunity opens up, then we get to assess our priorities,” said Swallow, who was discussing the realization with a friend over the weekend.

“We wonder — if we only had five days to live, would we change our life? The human condition makes us pretend that we are immortal — allowing us to get trapped in everyday minutiae, but we can go in a heartbeat. Tragedy can affect people instantly. So the things we do and who we live with become vitally important,” Swallow said. “The opportunity brings out goodwill in people, but then we need to ask: ‘What are my priorities?'”

The therapist reflected on the Challenger explosion and 9-11 tragedy as times in which people are prompted to take stock of their lives.

After the monumental terrorist attack, Sierra Community Church’s congregation grew from 650 to about 1,000. It has since leveled off to about 725.

The mind of one member of Wilvers’ congregation turned to the Challenger shuttle tragedy when she heard about Columbia’s destruction on Saturday.

“It took me right back to when the Challenger exploded. My heart went out to the families,” Colleen Shade said while leaving the church.

“Certainly, you think about the things we should pay attention to,” she added as she glanced at her daughters in the vehicle.

— Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at

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