At a church down the hill from a disaster, Sunday played out in small moments: a low-flying helicopter, a note slipped to the pastor, a driver looking for nine clients who never arrived.
It began as just another Sunday at a little church along Las Virgenes Road, on a quiet edge of suburban Los Angeles. The Church in the Canyon is an unremarkable box of a building, with a flat roof over glass front doors.
It was about 9:45 a.m. The Sunday worship service was an hour away. A ceiling of low clouds obscured the tops of the bare, brown hills across the road.
You cannot always see the moment that the world is about to change.
Elizabeth Howland Forrest had just arrived from Santa Monica, mesmerized along the way by the low-flying helicopter that she followed west for several miles on Highway 101. It weaved so masterfully with the bends in the road, she thought, until she lost sight of it ahead of her. She got off at the Las Virgenes exit, hit green lights at the strip center and the apartments, and parked at the church. She checked her makeup in the rearview mirror.
Scott Daehlin, who lives in a G.M.C. Safari in the parking lot, had prepared the sanctuary’s sound system for choir practice and stepped outside to get something from his van. Jerry Kocharian, a church member and maintenance worker, stood with his coffee on the opposite side of the building.
Pastor Bob Bjerkaas was inside, teaching Sunday school to teenagers, focused on Genesis. What does the ancient book say about the life we live now?
Pastor Bob, the congregants call him, heard a low helicopter through the church walls. That was not unusual on the edge of Los Angeles, where so many copters — news copters, traffic copters, police copters, search and rescue copters, private copters catering to those rich enough to fly over traffic instead of drive through it — provide a thwap-thwap-thwap backbeat to daily life.
But this one sounded really low.
Outside, Daehlin tried to trace the sound moving through the clouds. His body felt it — a persistent percussion, “like a kick drum” — but his eyes could not spot the helicopter, invisibly gliding away from him.
“Oh, no,” he muttered. “It’s too low.”
On the other side of the church, Kocharian caught a vague glimpse, a dark phantom in the murky clouds. It crossed Las Virgenes.
“It didn’t circle like it was trying to land,” Kocharian said. “It was moving.”
Out of a corner of her eye, from the driver’s side window, Howland Forrest saw a flash that spun her head toward the hills. The men outside heard it less as a boom and more as a thud — abrupt, a quick beat of shattering parts, and utter silence.
It burst through the walls of the church.
“Oh, dear Lord,” Pastor Bob said. “Something happened.”
There was no explosion, no Hollywood-style fireball. The helicopter struck the earth about a half-mile from Church in the Canyon, on high ground scorched by the massive Woolsey fire in November 2018.
Fifteen months ago, the mountains burned, all the way to Malibu, but the fire spared the church. The story was everywhere but there.
Not this time. By topographical luck, the church had the only real vantage point of the wreckage. The best view was from the church marquee along the street. Neighbors ambled there immediately, mingling with the churchgoers. No one in the growing crowd knew what to make of what they saw.
There were flames, but no inferno. Witnesses described something like flares, at least for a while. Pale smoke rose into the low, gray clouds.
Daehlin called 911. Within minutes, patrol cars zoomed past, toward Malibu Canyon, then spun around. They pulled into a driveway at the Las Virgenes Municipal Water District, a smattering of buildings at the base of the hills, directly across from the church.
Fire engines of various shapes and types came next. Television trucks followed. Emergency medical workers scampered up the hills, on trails usually used by dog walkers and mountain bikers, with all the best intentions.
Sunday services at the Presbyterian-affiliated Church in the Canyon, begin at 10:45. About 75 worshipers came on Sunday, chattering about the commotion outside. They filed into the small sanctuary, with rows of padded chairs under a low ceiling lined with fluorescent lights. The budget is tight, but Pastor Bob hopes to upgrade the lights by Easter.
Pastor Bob is 51, with red hair and a red goatee flecked with gray. He is legally blind in one eye and does not drive. He is married with four children — three boys and a girl, ages 15 to 20. He has a big laugh.
Many call him Coach Bob because he has coached lacrosse for decades, including at a high school. Pictures of past teams fill the walls of his office.
No one calls him by his last name, Bjerkaas. He spelled it, with a plea.
“Do not spell it a-s-s,” he said. “It’s bad enough to have ‘jerk’ in there.”
Pastor Bob’s planned Sunday sermon was about Job — “the suffering of a righteous man, and how we make sense of it,” he explained in his office on Wednesday.
“It was unusually apt,” he said.
A strange morning turned surreal. At the start of the Sunday service, Pastor Bob was passed a note from Howland Forrest, the church member who had glimpsed the crash from her car. He glanced at it. Reading is hard for someone who can wave his hands near his face and not see them.
The note said that Kobe Bryant was on the helicopter. It was 45 minutes before TMZ first broke the news to the world.
Someone in the parking lot, working for a local television station, had passed that rumor to Howland Forrest. Soon she saw a black SUV pull in. The driver got out, wearing a dress shirt with dark pants and dark jacket, she said. Visibly upset, he walked across the street, spoke with the authorities, and came back to the church lot.
He had been at Camarillo Airport, Howland Forrest said the man told her, waiting for a helicopter from Orange County. He planned to drive Bryant, his daughter and seven others to Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks.
“He said, ‘I got a quick call to come here,’” Howland Forrest said. She prayed with him, she said, and he left.
Pastor Bob did not dare share such information, unverified and unreported. But he steered his sermon toward the unfolding events outside.
“At the end, in my appeal, I said, ‘We’ve had a very powerful reminder that life is uncertain,’” he said. “‘Just as Job experienced great tragedy, very suddenly, something really shocking happened here today. It could happen to any one of us.’”
At 11:32, during the sermon, TMZ broke the story: Kobe Bryant was dead, killed in a helicopter crash. A man in the congregation stood to share the news from across the road that was now pinging around the world. It could not be more local or global.
As planned, the congregation concluded with an African-American spiritual, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands.”
Elizabeth Howland Forrest caught a glimpse of the crash after parking her car in the church’s lot.Credit…David Walter Banks for The New York Times
The service ended at noon. The crowd outside was multiplying. A sheriff’s deputy came into the church. They were closing roads in the area and wanted those in the church to know.
“This is going to get crazy, really fast,” the deputy said.
Silence, and Tears
At the Mamba Sports Academy, 15 miles west down the 101 in Thousand Oaks, there was no slow reveal. There was no evolving story line. The news of a helicopter crash and Kobe Bryant’s death came together, in one wicked blow.
A house of worship, a cathedral of sport, separated by a strand of highway, suddenly connected by the irrationality of happenstance.
“The whole room suddenly went silent,” said Jennifer Miller, who had two sons, ages 11 and 13, playing on teams from Fresno in a weekend tournament. “Basketballs dropped.”
The academy, the size of a Costco, squats in an industrial complex in Thousand Oaks. It once housed workers for Amgen, the pharmaceutical giant with a sprawling campus nearby, but was gutted and remade into a mega-gym a few years ago. Bryant became a partner in 2018, a couple years after his retirement from the N.B.A.
On this foggy morning, the academy was filled with excited boys and girls, their parents and coaches, the din of chatter, the thump of balls, the squeaks of sneakers, the bleats of whistles.
One of the five courts was cordoned off Sunday. It was where Bryant would coach the team of his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, just as he had on Saturday. They had games at noon and 2. Everyone knew that. People spent much of the morning watching games while sneaking peeks to see if Bryant had arrived.
News of the crash rippled quickly. Games were stopped. Miller got a stream of text messages. This isn’t true, right? He’s there with you, right?
There were sobs and circles of prayers. That is another thing the Mamba Sports Academy had in common with Church in the Canyon. Prayers.
At the church, people came. At Mamba Sports Academy, most people left. There was nothing else to do.
“It was surreal stepping out of that building and into, maybe, a different world,” Miller said.
Strange, the string of destruction and attention that has come recently to this normally quiet stretch of suburbia in Conejo Valley, with its landscaped streets and strip malls, manicured yards and swimming pools. The area feels designed to get away from the kinds of things that have plagued it recently.
Times like these can test faith. Pastor Bob had eased people through the fright and destruction of the wildfires, 15 months ago, that had driven out his family, too. He prayed with people affected by the mass shooting at the Borderline bar in Thousand Oaks on the eve of those fires, when 12 people died, plus the gunman.
This was different — as out of nowhere as a meteor, just outside the church doors.
Someone stopped him after church. What are you going to do?
“I have no idea,” Pastor Bob said. There is no action plan for unimaginable events.
Images beamed from satellite trucks and photographers parked outside the church’s front door had quickly ricocheted around the globe. People raced to the source of those pictures, crowding to see something they just had to see for themselves.
“I thought, what’s the nicest thing we can do right now?” Pastor Bob said. “We spent Sunday trying to be nice, in the name of Jesus.”
They let people park. They brought out water and coffee. They opened the restrooms. Television trucks and reporters crowded in. Fans soon flocked, like a pilgrimage.
“There was not a single problem,” Pastor Bob said. “Not a single piece of litter. A couple of guys were smoking marijuana in front, and I said, ‘You wouldn’t smoke marijuana in your grandma’s front yard, would you?’ And they said, ‘Oh, we’re sorry, Reverend.’”
“Life has a little bit of good and bad in it,” Pastor Bob said. “And on this side of heaven, we should always cultivate the good.”
Midway through the afternoon, when the crash’s death toll was confirmed at nine, Pastor Bob used his coach’s voice to get everyone’s attention. There would be a prayer service at 6:30, he said.
Eighty people came. Most were faces Pastor Bob had never seen. There was a broad range of ages and ethnicities, crowded into the little sanctuary that night, under the flicker of the fluorescent lights. Most wore Kobe Bryant jerseys. One teenager was named Kobe. Another was named Bryant.
Bjerkaas and the church offered coffee and water to mourners, the news media and the police. “We spent Sunday trying to be nice,” he said.Credit…David Walter Banks for The New York Times
“There are a lot of things we all have in common,” Pastor Bob said on Wednesday. “Sometimes when these difficult things happen, we’re reminded of that.”
Every day since has felt more normal than the day before. On Wednesday, a few television trucks remained. A shrine of flowers and balloons and notes were piled around a light post on the sidewalk. Sheriff’s deputies remained stationed across the street, to guard the area from the overly curious, while others patrolled the hills on horseback and all-terrain vehicles.
A constant swirl of a couple of dozen people stood by the church marquee. A young man from Van Nuys. A Caltrans worker on his lunch break. A man in a business suit. Two friends taking selfies. A woman with a dog.
They stood together, their backs to the church, staring at something they could not quite see. They just knew that the world had changed somehow, and this was the place it happened.