“It’s a small valley,” I heard people saying over and over on Wednesday as, like other Palo Altans, I took to the streets, ostensibly looking for power, Internet access, and hot coffee, but really, just wanting to be out among people; it was too weird to be alone in a cold, silent, and dark home office. Just before 8 a.m. on Wednesday the entire town, except, it seemed, for a few random traffic lights, lost power when a small airplane crashed into a transmission tower.
At first, while we’d heard there’d been a plane crash, we didn’t feel particularly connected to the crash itself; we were more concerned about the massive power outage and how we could possibly get through the day without Internet. Then we heard that the plane that had crashed was carrying three Tesla employees. Whoa. Tesla is one of our own, a Silicon Valley startup launched with some of the fortune created by Internet company PayPal.
And if we didn’t know the Tesla employees on board that plane directly, we certainly all knew at least one person who did. Forget six degrees of separation, the valley is a lot smaller than that. And the silent day without power no longer felt like a suddenly bestowed holiday; it felt like a day of mourning.
Yesterday, the identities of the three were officially announced: Doug Bourn, Brian Finn, and Andrew Ingram. Lots of people knew before that announcement, but, for once, didn’t tweet it, blog it, or post it on Facebook. (Bourn’s name did come out immediately because the plane was registered to him.)
Bourn, 56, was piloting the plane. He was a senior electrical engineer at Tesla, and an important part of the team that developed the power train for the Tesla Roadster. He liked to explain things—whether it was the ins and outs of the Roadster to a local group of engineers or how to solve a robotics problem to a group of high school girls. Bourn, an IEEE member, spoke regularly at IEEE and
ASME events, and was a volunteer coach for the robotics team at Castilleja High School. He also taught flying. Before joining Tesla, Bourn spent 10 years at IDEO, the independent design firm behind the original Apple mouse and the Palm Treo.
Finn, 42, was interactive electronics manager at Tesla, working on an interactive touchscreen for the next generation car. An IEEE member, Finn previously worked at the Volkswagon Electronics Research Laboratory in Palo Alto; he loved skiing and playing the guitar.
Ingram, who celebrated his 31st birthday on Monday, worked at Tesla as an electrical engineering generalist. Coming off his previous post at Dolby Laboratories, he was passionate about audio, but, according to Tesla’s blog, was “eager to lend a hand wherever it was needed, from marketing to manufacturing.” In his free time he rowed with a local crew team.
Around 6 pm Wednesday evening, the power came back on to Palo Alto. On Thursday, there was still a hint of strangeness in the air, of vulnerability. Last night, we commented about how beautiful the street lights look.
Today, things are almost back to normal, but not quite. The night before the crash, Bourn worked with the girls at Castilleja in a final push to complete their competition robot; they just have this weekend to finish it before the Tuesday deadline. They’ll work on, but, their website notes, Bourn’s loss will be especially felt during this time.“Doug was a calming force for the team through all of their ups and downs and was always present at local competitions to cheer the team on,” it says.
Over at Tesla, people are still in shock. Said Elon Musk in a blog post: “Tesla is a small, tightly-knit company and this is a tragic loss for us."
And the three Tesla engineers have left little pockets of sadness all over. One commenter on the San Jose Mercury News web site notes, “Doug was a very upbeat, interesting and giving man. I met him at Peets coffee and tea when i was a barrista there. He was part of the crowd that enjoyed their morning cup of joe and good conversation outside of the homer peets building.…He will be missed.“
It’s a small valley.
Photos top to bottom: Doug Bourn, Brian Finn, Andrew Ingram. Credit: Tesla Motors
Tekla S. Perry is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Based in Palo Alto, Calif., she's been covering the people, companies, and technology that make Silicon Valley a special place for more than 40 years. An IEEE member, she holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from Michigan State University.