Growing up in Linden, Calif., Cal Poly graduate Andrew Thiel and his siblings were as close as brothers and sisters could be. Jealousy and sibling rivalry never came between them, Andrew’s father Mark said. Andrew’s brothers were his biggest fans, but it never made him too proud.
“Andrew was everything a parent could ask for,” Mark said. “He was someone who helped others without ever being asked.”
When Andrew’s family and friends received the news that his private plane went down in Baja California, Mexico, leaving no survivors, on Friday afternoon, they were shocked and devastated.
The plane was flying to the small town of San Quintín, Mexico as part of Flying Samaritans, a nonprofit organization which operates free medical clinics in Baja. On the plane with Andrew were pilot and plane owner Roger Lyon, an attorney from Cayucos and doctors James Thornton and Graciela Sarmiento from Arroyo Grande.
It was Andrew’s first trip with the Flying Samaritans.
According to The Tribune, the 1973 Beechcraft Bonanza A36 left the El Cipres air base Friday afternoon in foggy weather. Flying Samaritans President Victor Jones said Lyon radioed the plane’s position 10 miles after takeoff as part of standard procedure. There was no further radio contact after 7:30 p.m. as reported by The Tribune.
Jones said two other planes took off on the same trip after Lyon’s plane left. When the two other planes landed in San Quintín and the pilots realized the third plane was missing, an alert was issued. There is a rule against single-engine planes flying after dark in Mexico, according to Jones, so the absence of Lyon’s plane by nightfall was a sign something was wrong.
Jones said the wreckage was found Saturday afternoon after a search conducted by the Mexican Air Force and Marines. Based on the accident location, the plane had only traveled 20 to 30 miles south before crashing.
“If the conditions are dangerous, we encourage pilots to scrub the mission,” Jones said. “However, our pilots are experienced and have made trips in foggy weather before.”
Jones said the reason Lyon’s plane went down is still unclear at this time and that the Flying Samaritans are “sickened” by the loss of their friends.
According to Mark, Andrew had gone on this trip because he wanted to give medical care to children living in San Quintín.
“Andrew had a soft spot for kids,” Mark said. “He wanted to go into plastic surgery so he could help kids with deformities like cleft palates.”
Mark said his son graduated from Cal Poly with honors in June and had already taken the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT).
Andrew’s older brother Garrett said Andrew was just finishing his secondary applications to medical schools and already had interviews set up with hopes of discussings his trip to San Quintín in interviews. Garrett and Andrew were both biological sciences majors living and studying together at Cal Poly. Garrett also graduated in June — he went on a mission trip to North Carolina after his freshman year; when he returned to Cal Poly two years later as a sophomore, he was in Andrew’s class.
“It was rare to see us apart — people thought we were twins,” Garrett said. “Andrew was selfless; he always thought about others first. He was the best brother and the best friend I could ever ask for.”
Andrew attended Linden High School in Linden, Calif. where he was the valedictorian of his class in addition to playing basketball, baseball and football. School personnel said he was a peer tutor and made presentations at local elementary schools on drug and alcohol prevention.
According to Linden High School personnel, Andrew’s death left the school community reeling and continues to be incredibly difficult.
Biological sciences senior Tyler Simpson, a close friend of Andrew’s during his time at Cal Poly, said he studied with him for the MCAT. Simpson was invited by Andrew to join the Baja trip last week, but wasn’t able to go.
“I didn’t believe it when I heard — he had been sitting in my kitchen two days before,” Simpson said. “Andrew was just a great person to be around, with such a promising future.”
Hayley Luker, a Paso Robles resident, met Andrew a few years ago through his brother Garrett. Luker said Andrew would have done anything for anybody if needed.
“He didn’t want to be a doctor for the money; he genuinely wanted to help people and save lives,” Luker said. “All of his family and friends have to go through the process of dealing with this. He’ll be missed by so many people.”
Jones said the Gold Coast Chapter of the Flying Samaritans, which covers San Luis Obispo County, will hold a meeting today to plan a memorial for the crash victims; it is tentatively scheduled for next week.
A memorial for Andrew will be held in the University Union (UU) Plaza Monday, Oct. 25, at 5 p.m.
“Andrew had so much promise, but he was still so humble and grounded,” Mark said. “There was never a time when we talked that Andrew didn’t say ‘I love you’ before saying goodbye.”