South Lake Tahoe man copes with loss of astronaut sister-in-law

South Tahoe High School track coach Dominique Westlake is struggling to cope with losing his 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 news he received 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 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 was a dramatic departure from Westlake's mood when he witnessed 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 take off 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 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," the Rev. 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.

When Wilvers first saw TV images of the explosion Saturday, he didn't think it was a live broadcast. He thought he was watching a show highlighting the Challenger space shuttle's explosion on Jan. 28, 1986.

The pastor recalled Westlake telling him of seeing his sister-in-law's takeoff.

"I wish I could give words to it. It really profoundly affected me," Wilvers said of his reaction once he realized Westlake's loss.

Tragedy brings people together to mourn, clergy and therapists agree.

But the circumstances play a vital role in emotional maturity, 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.

"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 minutia, 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?'"


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