Grieving has not been easy for the family of Sarah Chester and her 13-year-old daughter Payton, who were among nine passengers killed in last year’s Jan. 26 helicopter crash that also took the life of Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna.
As the one-year anniversary of the day approaches, Sarah Chester’s brothers, Andy and Chris George, and their mom, Catherine George, remember a kind soul in Sarah, and someone with a future as bright as the sun in Payton. And though a year has nearly passed, the pain is still difficult and their memories are still with them each day. They’re still asking themselves questions about why it happened. From left to right, Chris George, Sarah Chester, Catherine George and Andy George. (Family Courtesy photo).
Sarah Chester, who was 45, was also survived by her husband, Chris, and her sons, Hayden and Riley, who are both now 17, and still live in Orange County. Payton attended Harbor View Elementary in Corona del Mar through fifth grade before moving on to St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano, where she was in eighth grade last year.
Sarah was a former elementary school teacher at Tustin Memorial Academy who had retired to raise her family.
“Sarah was my second child and my only daughter,” Catherine George said. “As time went on, we started trading places and she became the matriarch of our family. She was an amazing wife, mother, daughter, sister and friend. We frequently talked twice a day. Often early in the morning when she was driving her children to school and at night when her house was quiet.
“During this unbearable year of loss, we all find ourselves saying, ‘What would Sarah do about this?’ or ‘Let’s call Sarah.’ Never a day goes by that I do not want to pick up the phone to just say hello or ask her advice on something. She always had a good answer.”
Payton was a member of Kobe Bryant’s Mamba girls basketball team, and remembered as a special player with a huge heart and smile.
Payton and two of her Mamba teammates – Gianna Bryant and Alyssa Altobelli – took off from John Wayne Airport on a foggy morning on their way to Thousand Oaks, where they had a basketball game planned that day at the Mamba Sports Academy. The helicopter crashed on a hillside in Calabasas, killing all on board.
All three girls were just 13. 13-year-old Payton Chester. (Family courtesy photo).
“Every one of my nine grandchildren are special, but Payton was truly an unusual special,” Catherine George said. “At 13 years old, she was 5 feet 11 inches tall and an exceptional basketball player. Not only was she an athlete, she was smart and a friend to all.
“She had the biggest smile. Losing my daughter and granddaughter in this highly publicized tragedy amid a COVID epidemic could not be more difficult. Our lives will never be the same, but it is my hope that eventually our grief will walk beside us instead of consuming us. This family has a lot to live for.”
MEDIA COVERAGE AND GRIEF
Extra attention has come with being linked with the death of Kobe Bryant, one of the world’s most famous athletes and beloved in Los Angeles, where he played his entire 20-year career with the Lakers. The family has endured that attention since last January.
“Never could I have imagined that something like this could have happened,” Andy George said. “I feel sorrow for everyone lost in this tragedy and for their families, especially for Payton, Gigi and Alyssa, who were just starting their lives.
“I think about it daily. I understand why this gets the media attention it does. It hurts to see the wreckage. It hurts to have my beautiful sister and my sweet niece commonly described as ‘others.’ I know why it happens, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like it, agree with it, or accept it. They will never be ‘others’ to us.”
The immediate onslaught of media attention made it difficult, Chris George admitted, and the family has turned away most media requests.
“We definitely had a few media inquiries right after the crash and in recent weeks leading up to the anniversary,” Chris George said. “This is, of course, a very sensitive situation and sometimes the media can take what you say out of context, so we decided to say nothing.
“But it is very important that we let people know what an amazing sister we had and what an extremely talented, kind-hearted niece we had and that their lives were taken away way too quickly. The world was robbed of what they could have accomplished. The sky was the limit for both of them. Our family will never be the same.”
PAINFUL MEMORIES CONTINUE
Andy George is the head football coach at La Serna High, where he attended high school along with Sarah and his brother Chris.
Sarah was an athlete too, described as a standout member of the school’s soccer team.
“Honestly, as this (anniversary) date approaches, I find myself missing them even more,” Andy George said. “I didn’t think that was possible. It’s painful. The way this happened and not being able to say goodbye? Having to see the images everywhere you look. Yes, it brings back all of those memories, but there is not a day that goes by where I am not thinking about Sarah and Payton already. Sarah and her daughter Payton Chester. (Family courtesy photo).
“For a long time, there were days where I didn’t want to get out of bed and face this, but I knew I had no choice. Just like I ask my players to have courage and fight through adversity, I knew it was time for me to step up and do just that. There were three little girls and my wife depending on me. There was my mother, whose remarkable strength was an inspiration. I continue to think about the pain that my brother-in-law and my nephews are going through and the courage that they exhibit daily.
“I know how important it is to stay strong for them. I think about my sister and what she would have wanted. It’s an art to live with pain. So I continue to move forward with their love and memory in my heart.”
A TRAGEDY THAT COULD HAVE BEEN AVOIDED?
Why did the helicopter leave John Wayne airport that morning?
It is a question that still haunts the Chester and George families, and is still being investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board, which will hold a public meeting next month to determine the probable cause of the helicopter crash – a key component to several lawsuits that are awaiting the results of the investigation.
But the why? It’s hard to cope with.
“I think about that day quite often and the events of that morning,” Chris George said. “We all knew Sarah and Payton were taking the helicopter with Kobe and Gianna to their basketball game in Thousand Oaks. I was on my phone and got a news alert about a helicopter crash in Calabasas. I immediately was concerned, so I tried to call Sarah numerous times with no answer.
“Fearing the worst, I raced to find my mother and brother and was able to reach them minutes before the news broke that it was Kobe’s helicopter that crashed. I, like most people, definitely question why the helicopter left that morning, especially when so many other planes, police, and news helicopters were grounded. I am certainly not an expert, but I guess in a couple of weeks when the final NTSB report comes out we will all hopefully have some answers.”
The why question is difficult for Andy George, too.
“Every day I ask myself, ‘Why did this happen?’” Andy George said. “I try not to focus on that, because it often leaves me with feelings of anger. Instead, I try to replace that with all of the great memories in my heart that I have of Sarah and Payton. I replace it with their laughter and the feelings I had when I was near them. Their light was so bright and it will continue to shine for me and for everyone who knew them.”
DEALING WITH GRIEF AND COVID
Time usually makes grieving easier, but soon after the helicopter crash, the coronavirus pandemic took shape, and the normal routines of daily life that help people cope with the loss of loved ones was put on hold.
“To say this has been an extremely tough year is an understatement,” Chris George said. “There hasn’t been a minute where I have not thought about my sister Sarah and my niece Payton. I miss the way they both laugh. I miss the way my sister always scolded me even though I’m older than she is. I miss talking to her about my kids and what they are doing.”
Chris’ son, Jake, is a junior at La Serna High and a member of the football team. He was planning on dedicating the season to his Aunt Sarah and cousin Payton, but the coronavirus pandemic has put all youth sports on pause since March.
“The way I was going to dedicate my junior season to my aunt and cousin was by letting anyone who interviewed me after games know that I was playing the season for them,” Jake said. “I wanted to do this so that their names would not be forgotten and people will know how caring they were and how much they supported me and wanted me to succeed. I was also going to wear a shirt that had my cousin’s jersey number and name on the back under my jersey every game so that she was with me throughout the whole year.
“Since we weren’t able to play this year, I continue to train and be ready for when I get to step on the field again with my teammates. And when I do get the chance to play football again, every game will be dedicated to my aunt and cousin to honor them and help keep their memory alive.”
Chris and Andy George both spoke of how the coronavirus pandemic has made it more difficult to grieve.
“I am not really sure how my family was able to deal with this tragedy, which has only been compounded by the pandemic,” Chris George said. “I ask my mother all the time how we are all getting through this. Having my family be a part of this international tragedy is very surreal. As the cliché goes, we definitely are taking this one day at a time. Unfortunately, because this was an international tragedy we are going to have to be reminded about this and that tragic morning forever. At some point in time, we realize you have to live for the living. I have my own kids and they do not want to see their father sad all the time.”
For Andy George, the last high school football game he coached was in a CIF Southern Section divisional championship in 2019, just a few months before he lost his sister and niece.
“I think it’s safe to say the impact of COVID didn’t hit me as hard in the beginning as it did for others because of the grief,” Andy George said. “I guess I just didn’t have the ability to process what was happening worldwide and also what was happening in our family.
“I’ve realized I look at my life now as the way it was prior to January 26 and the way it is now. I know this has been a difficult year for everyone and my heart goes out to everyone affected by COVID. This includes my students, my players, and their families. Our football team is a family. I know these young men are devastated. It is an added layer of pain to see them suffering being away from the sport they love and being away from each other. I wish I could help them more. Of course, I miss football. I miss being out on the field with my players and fellow coaches. It would have been a nice outlet. It’s what I love to do.”
THE HEALING CONTINUES
While being associated with a national tragedy has its difficult moments, it also has helped with healing through kind words and tributes from all walks of life.
“In the days that followed the accident, we heard many stories of Sarah and Payton,” Andy George said. “I have always known my sister to be a beautiful, selfless and generous person. The detailed stories of her supporting friends, serving her community and supporting her family were endless and only solidified this picture of my incredible sister. Pictured from left to right, Andy George, Catherine George, Chris George and Sarah Chester. (Family courtesy photo).
“We heard beautiful stories of Payton’s kindness, loyalty and generosity. She was truly perfect. I picture Payton draining the 3-point basket to win the game on the 26th. I picture her with the confidence to take that shot, the smile on her face when she hit it and the joy running back on defense as she celebrated with her teammates.
“She had so much to offer this world. They both did. And they were beautiful together. I learned so much from Sarah and Payton and will forever be influenced by them. I just miss my sister and my niece. I miss all of us together. I find comfort knowing one day I will see them again.”
Chris George echoed those sentiments.
“The world lost a lot of great people that morning,” Chris George said. “Multiple families were devastated in a matter of seconds. A lot of people were lost that had chapters in their lives that will never be told. Sarah and Payton were very special people that meant the world to so many.
“The Christmas before the tragedy, I asked my sister, ‘Does Payton ever stop smiling? Does she ever get upset?’ And Sarah laughed and replied, ‘No.’ Payton was a fierce competitor but she always had time to have fun. I often ask why God would take a mother and her 13-year-old daughter … hopefully someday I will know. The one thing I do know is that our family will never be the same and Sarah and Payton will never be forgotten.”