Couple celebrates new home, mourns pilot lost in crash that took old home

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By Nichole Golden
Catholic News Service

MARIETTA, Ga. (CNS) — In March 2017, Dcn. Norm Keller and his wife, Barbara, lost their home in Marietta after a private plane crashed into their front yard and exploded.

The fire ravaged the house and the mementos collected during their marriage. The focus quickly turned from the house toward the pilot, who died in the crash.

“He was a father and a grandfather, just like me. We pray they are comforted,” said Dcn. Keller at the time.

Dcn. Keller serves at St. Joseph Church in Marietta. The Kellers settled into a new house six months after the plane crash.

“We moved in on Sept. 18. It’s about four miles from where we used to live,” Dcn. Keller told The Georgia Bulletin, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.

The couple’s new home is in Kennesaw and was blessed by Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory Nov. 29.

On the evening of March 24, the Kellers were attending Stations of the Cross and a Lenten fish fry at their parish when a Cessna Citation crashed on their property. The pilot, who died in the crash, had reported mechanical difficulties. The plane exploded, and the fire, fed by jet fuel, rapidly consumed the home where the Kellers had lived for 10 years.

Atlanta Archbishop Wilton D. Gregory poses after blessing the new home of Deacon Norm Keller and his wife, Barbara, in 2017 in Kennesaw, Ga. The Kellers lost their Marietta home after a small plane crashed on their property in March 2017. Picture, from left to right, are Joanne Beckman, Kathy Landry, Archbishop Gregory, Barbara Keller, Deacon Keller and Kay Beckman. (CNS photo/Allen Kinzly, courtesy Archdiocese of Atlanta)

The couple believes that if they had been home, the outcome would’ve been different due to the nature of the fire. It was common practice for the deacon to sit on the front porch and say evening prayers.

“The thing is … we figure both of us probably would not have survived,” said Dcn. Keller. “It was really so ironic that it was just our house.”

They are grateful to the community — from first responders to businesses and churches — for supporting them in the aftermath.

“The whole community rallied around us. You learn what Christian love is all about,” said Dcn. Keller.

The Kellers stayed with their daughter while dealing with insurance and property matters, until they could move into a new home.

“There were so many Simons of Cyrene who came to our aid and helped us carry the cross,” he said.

While wedding photos and sentimental items from their childhoods were lost in the fire, charred statues of Mary and of St. Joseph holding Jesus remained and are now at the new home.

The Kellers continue to pray for the family of the deceased pilot, Robert Westlake.

A retired mechanical engineer, Dcn. Keller was ordained to the diaconate in 2011. He serves in the archdiocesan prison and jail ministry, ministering to those in jails and prisons, including death-row inmates.

Deacon Norm Keller and his wife, Barbara, comfort one another as they stand in the driveway of their Marietta, Ga., home, which was destroyed after a Cessna aircraft crashed in the couple’s front yard in March 2017. The Kellers were at their parish church, St. Joseph, for the Stations of the Cross and a Lenten fish fry when the crash occurred, killing the pilot. (CNS photo/Michael Alexander, Georgia Bulletin)

The Kellers celebrated a wedding anniversary in the fall.

“We’re 49-year newlyweds,” said Dcn. Keller.

Barbara is slowly filling the home with needed items.

“It was such a wonderful day — the cherry on top of the sundae,” said the deacon about the blessing by Archbishop Gregory.

Barbara’s three friends from St. Joseph — Joanne Beckman, Kay Beckman and Kathy Landry — all attended the blessing. They were with Barbara when she first learned of the fire from her husband and their parish priests.

“To have the archbishop with his enormously busy schedule take some time to do this blessing for us is quite an honor,” Barbara wrote in an email. “Deacons bless houses all the time, but we are indeed so grateful to have had the archbishop’s support through all of this that it seemed most fitting for him to do the blessing.”


Golden is a staff reporter at THE GEORGIA BULLETIN, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Atlanta.