Community grapples with a terrible loss
On Wednesday, July 24, a twin-engine Beechcraft Baron carrying Damon Brown, 61, and Sarah Brown, 68, and their son Duncan Brown, 25, crashed just before landing at the Chadron, Nebraska, municipal airport at about 2:30 p.m., killing everyone on board. The family was returning from an aviation event in Wisconsin.
Sarah Andrews Brown was a geologist and mystery writer. Damon Brown, also a geologist, was a partner at EBA Engineering, a civil and environmental engineering firm in Santa Rosa. Their only child, Duncan, a graduate of Analy High School and Occidental College, earned his master’s in architecture while working at Persinger Architects in Sebastopol. All three lived in Graton.
The report from the National Transportation Safety Board released on July 31 did not list the cause of the crash, though it did indicate that there was no fire or explosion at the site and that the plane’s fuel tanks were nearly empty.
It also relayed two witness accounts: one told officials he saw the plane as it was preparing to land suddenly drop nose-down behind the tree line. Another said she heard the plane sputter, then go silent, before the crash.
Those are the bare facts, but what these facts don’t capture is the deep and quirky charm of this small Graton family and the outsized hole their sudden disappearance from this Earth has left in the hearts of those who knew them.
Sarah and Damon: Bonded through a shared love of science
Sarah grew up in an academic family in Connecticut. Her parents were prep school teachers, and Sarah learned early, as she wrote in her online bio, that “life is for learning, and everybody around you is a teacher.”
Since childhood, she had a passion for the outdoors, including sailing with her father and wandering solo through the woods and fields during long summers at her family’s compound in Maine.
Despite the academic milieu she grew up in, Sarah, who had dyslexia, struggled in school early on. Ultimately she found an intellectual home studying geology at Colorado College, where she excelled. Rock formations told her more than words ever could, she said once.
Ironically, though she got her bachelor’s and master’s in geology and worked in the field for many years, she would find her greatest fame in the world of words, with a series of 11 mystery novels starring geologist and sleuth Em Hansen. (Her dyslexia didn’t bother her while writing, Sarah said, only while reading.)
Sarah met Damon, who grew up in Marin, while they were both getting their degrees in geology in Colorado. Later they moved together to California. Duncan was born in 1994.
“He was the delight of their lives,” longtime family friend Susan Upchurch said.
As Sarah wrote in her bio, “Delighting in motherhood, Sarah simplified her task list somewhat, quitting office-bound work so that she could stay home and immerse herself in raising this delightful and fascinating child.”
The family also volunteered in the community: they helped found Graton Today and belonged to the Graton Community Club. Sarah volunteered at the Hallberg Butterfly Gardens.
Damon, meanwhile, held down the fort financially. He joined and then became a partner at EBA, all the while pursuing his love of flying. According to Upchurch, Damon volunteered doing Angel Flights, flying seriously ill people to medical appointments out of the area.
“He’s been doing that for several years,” Upchurch said. “He was such a meticulous pilot. That’s part of the reason this is so shocking.”
Everyone in the Brown family — Damon, Sarah and Duncan — had their pilot’s license. (Sarah had let hers lapse in recent years.) When Duncan was a child, Sarah and Damon had a rule about never flying together so that, if the plane crashed, there would always be someone left to take care of Duncan. As Duncan grew older and able to care for himself, they dropped this rule.
Duncan Brown was a force of nature
For friends in Graton and beyond who know the family, Duncan’s death is perhaps the hardest part of this whole tragedy.
“When I read that Damon’s plane had gone down, I thought please, please, please, don’t let Duncan be on the plane,” Upchurch said. “I mean, Sarah and Damon, they had full lives. Duncan was just starting out. It’s just so heartbreaking.”
Everyone who knew Duncan knew this: he was a talker. He talked like other people breathe. It was something he struggled with and sometimes those who loved him struggled with it as well. But here’s something they never struggled with: the knowledge that the young man standing before them was a bright and loving person with an enthusiastic, can-do personality that made him a force of nature.
His friends remember him as loyal, thoughtful and, above all, kind.
“He was the gentlest, kindest and most sincere person I’ve ever known,” Jameson Rush said, “and his parents were warm and generous. I don’t know how to process or even conceptualize a loss of this magnitude ... They were such a loving family and meals with them were always jovial and full of stories about their adventures. I loved them all, and I will remember them forever.”
In college, true to his science-loving upbringing, Duncan did internships at NASA and Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where Moogega Cooper was his advisor.
“It was unusual and refreshing for someone that young to have such confidence in networking and conversational skills,” Cooper said. “As I grew to know Duncan more, I realized that he was wise beyond his years … He has taught me and all those around him that life is unique and worthy of being fully explored. He was a firework, and I hope his light continues to carry in all of us.”
After college, Duncan worked for a year in Asia, but ultimately came back to California, where after a long job search he found work he loved at Persinger Architects in Sebastopol.
“While working for us full time, Duncan also managed to obtain his master’s degree in architecture, with the same zest and accolades that he was famous for in all he pursued,” owners Angela and Alexis Persinger wrote in a Facebook memorial to Duncan. “Duncan never saw the downside in anyone, or any thing. He always saw the upside to any situation or person, no matter how seemingly faulty or troubled, that situation or person might be. He consistently distilled the best potential for each, no matter what … We happen to believe Duncan was a tremendously special, incredible human being, and we dearly mourn the fact that this world has lost one of its finest angels, much too soon.”
Recently Duncan had moved to a new job at Wright Construction in Windsor. Colleagues from both businesses deluged Sonoma West with paeans to Duncan, but a personal note Angela Persinger wrote to the newspaper seemed to capture best what so many are feeling about Duncan’s untimely death.
“Alexis and I both grew to love that beautiful young human being called Duncan, so truly much, personally, and his horrible loss will forever be etched upon our hearts, equally as much as his magnificent impact. He’s irreplaceable in every way to this planet and our community.”