By NICHOLE GOLDEN, Staff Writer | Published March 28, 2017
MARIETTA—Faith and the support of the St. Joseph Church community are sustaining Deacon Norm Keller and his wife, Barbara, after a private plane crashed into their front yard, exploding in flames and destroying their home.
The Cessna Citation crashed at approximately 7:20 p.m. Friday, March 24, as the Kellers attended a parish fish fry and Stations of the Cross. The fire destroyed the Vistawood Lane home where they had lived for a decade.
The pilot, 78-year-old Robert George Westlake, died in the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the accident. The pilot had reported mechanical difficulties prior to witnesses observing the plane spiraling downward.
“Chances are we probably wouldn’t have made it out of there,” said Deacon Keller. “Barbara and I, we have our lives. The Blessed Mother and her Son have a plan for us.”
Msgr. John Walsh, St. Joseph’s pastor, received word of the crash from a parishioner, who lives near the couple. She told the priest what had happened and asked if the Kellers were at church.
“Msgr. Walsh called me after Stations of the Cross and said ‘I need to talk to you’,” recalled Deacon Keller. “When you get that news, it’s hard to compute that in your head.”
He first hoped it was some type of small drone that had crashed into the home.
The Kellers say their home can be replaced. Their thoughts are with the pilot and his family.
“He was a father and a grandfather, just like me. We pray they are comforted,” said Deacon Keller.
Their own son-in-law died unexpectedly last year and they understand the human toll of the crash.
The couple will celebrate 49 years of marriage in October. They lost many special items in the fire, including their wedding album, his Baltimore Catechism and first Communion prayer book, Barbara’s childhood toy box and his deacon’s cross. They also lost one of their vehicles.
Most of what they had is a total loss due to the fire and jet fuel spewed across the site. Some metal objects may be salvageable.
“There’s a restoration company that will come in and do that,” he explained.
Deacon Keller had only one volume of his breviary with him at the time of the accident. A deacon friend has given him others to replace those lost.
The support of the parish and the community at large uplifts the Kellers.
“This beginning has just been wonderful,” said Deacon Keller. “The archbishop even called me. What blessings we have.”
The Kellers met with the insurance adjuster. They are in the process of making a decision whether to rebuild on the same lot or move elsewhere.
They are staying with their daughter, who lives in Cobb County. Their son, who also lives in the area, rushed to buy clothing for his parents.
Msgr. Walsh and Father Michael Revak, parochial vicar, accompanied the Kellers back to their home. Deacon Keller said the mood was somber as the pilot’s remains were still on the scene.
“We just said a little prayer for the pilot. My prayers and my focus are on him and his family.”
Charred statues of Mary and St. Joseph, holding Jesus, stand near the front door of the Keller home. Another of St. Francis of Assisi in the back yard was unscathed.
“He’s in magnificent condition,” said the deacon.
One neighbor is struggling with the smell of jet fuel in his home, and another has buckled siding from the heat generated by the fire.
The Marietta neighborhood is the type where people are out walking on spring evenings and all watch out for each other. Deacon Keller is grateful no one was hurt.
“That’s a miracle in itself. It could’ve been a lot worse,” he said.
A local Publix pharmacy refilled prescriptions lost in the fire for free. The employees also pitched in and presented a potted plant, a lunch, and a gift card for the family.
“It makes this journey palatable,” said Deacon Keller of the kindness they have received.
He thanked the firefighters and police for helping keep others safe and damage to the property of others at a minimum.
“They were very gracious to us,” he said.
A retired mechanical engineer, Deacon Keller, 70, was ordained to the diaconate in 2011. In addition to serving at St. Joseph Church, he also serves in the archdiocesan prison and jail ministry, ministering to those in county jails and in state prisons, including those on death row.
The Kellers have already considered having Msgr. Walsh renew their marriage vows this fall and perhaps could recreate their wedding photos then.
After surveying the scene, Father Revak told Deacon Keller, “Boy, the Lord is handing you a cross to carry.” The deacon replied that he is grateful to be alive to carry it.
In addition to parishioners lending encouragement, other local churches have reached out to the couple.
“The community is there. It is really, really wonderful,” he said. “It keeps us on an even keel. We will get through this.”
Cards and notes of encouragement to Deacon Norm and Barbara Keller may be sent to St. Joseph Church, 87 Lacy St., Marietta, GA 30060.