The intertwined journeys of three Valley residents to heal old wounds and realize new dreams ended together Sunday with the ache of destinations not yet reached, but without the sting of paths not taken.
Ahwatukee Foothills couple Lee and Sharon Kochert had just begun their return trip from a family visit to the San Diego area with Sharon’s 25-year-old daughter, Alexandria “Alex” Meekcoms, when the single-engine Cessna Skylane aircraft Lee owned and piloted suddenly plunged into the Pacific Ocean just minutes after takeoff.
Alex, a Former Mountain Pointe High School English teacher and girls’ volleyball coach, spent the final months of her life working to resolve past differences with her estranged mother, revive a stalled relationship with her ex-husband and master her new profession as a fitness trainer, competitor and model.
Sharon, 59, had found a renewed closeness to her daughter and a sense of adventure through her marriage to retired Tempe dentist Leroy “Lee” Kochert, 70, an experienced pilot and sailor with whom she had just completed a two-year maritime voyage to Australia, friends and relatives said.
Commercial fishermen about two miles offshore recovered the bodies of Alex and Sharon, but a Coast Guard search team was unable to locate Lee’s body, which authorities believe was dragged down with the sunken fuselage.
The three had flown to Carlsbad, Calif., to see Sharon’s daughter, also Alex’ sister, Nichole Burgan, along with her husband Erik, the couple’s 10-year-old daughter Taliyah and 5-week-old son Kaj.
As the trio was ready to return to Chandler Municipal Airport, the plane, registered to Lee, crashed into the ocean just after taking off at 9:45 a.m., McClellan-Palomar spokesman Bill Polick said.
“About three or four minutes later, witnesses saw the plane go into the water,” he said.
The Coast Guard decided to call off its search for Lee, said his daughter, Monica Kochert, sobbing.
During a phone interview Monday, Monica said the search team believed Lee’s body probably had remained inside the plane, which had sunk too deep in the water to recover.
Lee had practiced dentistry in Tempe since 1967 but had retired recently, Monica said. The couple had just returned in December from the Australia voyage in their 42-foot sailboat.
“He loved to fly and he loved to sail,” she said. “They loved to travel. They’ve had many great experiences.”
The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash, Polick said, but it could take weeks to determine the cause. Lee had radioed in a “catastrophic event” to air traffic controllers just after takeoff, he added.
Mountain Pointe girls’ volleyball coach Fred Mann said Alex had taught and coached at the school for a few years before leaving to pursue her fitness career. He was also her coach until she graduated from Mountain Pointe in 2001.
“She just did a great job as a coach, and the kids just loved her,” he said.
Alex’ father, Raoul “Rook” Meekcoms, said his daughter’s greatest joy came from helping and teaching others, which was evident from the lasting bonds she shared with her former students.
“I can’t tell you the number of calls that I’ve gotten from the girls that she coached,” he said during a phone interview at his home in the Portland area.
Friends and family said Alex’ relationship with her father was closer than with anyone else in her life, with the possible exception of her late grandfather. Her ashes will be interred next to her grandfather in Oregon.
“The lucky thing, I feel, is the relationship that we had,” her father said. “I’ll think about her every day for the rest of my life.”
Another important relationship in Alex’ life was the one she shared with her former husband, Phoenix firefighter Hunter Walden.
The two met six years ago and married quickly, Walden said, but both later decided they weren’t ready for such a big step.
Still, after just a few months apart, the former spouses resumed their romantic relationship, he said, and they had recently bought a house together in Laveen, a community northwest of South Mountain Park.
Walden said as a firefighter, he is no stranger to death and loss, but that exposure did nothing to prepare him emotionally for Sunday’s crash.
“We see this kind of thing every day, but it just doesn’t hit home that the person you love the most in your life just isn’t coming home.”
Friends will have a memorial for Alex 5 p.m. Thursday at Mountain Pointe High School, 4201 East Knox Road, in Ahwatukee Foothills.
Tribune writer Katie McDevitt contributed to this report.