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Retired Amgen Division Chief Dies in Paragliding Accident Near Mt. Whitney

The Region

Crash: Biologist Bruce Wallace, one of the first employees at the giant biotechnology company in Thousand Oaks, is found dead after a two-day search.

September 25, 2002|DAVID KELLY and HOLLY WOLCOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Bruce Wallace, a distinguished biologist and one of the first employees of biotech giant Amgen, was killed last week when his paraglider crashed into a cliff face near Mt. Whitney in the Sierra Nevada range.

The 54-year-old Ojai resident, known for his dry wit and adventurous spirit, was flying at 12,000 feet Friday when the accident occurred, according to the Inyo County Sheriff's Department.

Two men flying with Wallace lost radio contact about 15 minutes after they all took off from a popular spot known as Walt's Point. Wallace's body was found two days later after an extensive air search. His death was ruled accidental.

Wallace began working at Amgen in 1980, when the Thousand Oaks company was made up of a handful of researchers sharing a building with a limousine company. The young scientist helped design Amgen's first lab and locate space for additional facilities, officials said.

"He wasn't a founder, but he was one of the first employees," said Amgen spokeswoman Barbara Bronson Gray.

Before Wallace retired in January, he headed up the company's environmental health and safety division, Gray said. Wallace had a doctorate in molecular biology from UCLA and worked with Caltech to develop hands-on science programs for high school students.

Wallace served on a number of foundations and commissions. He was active with the Thacher School in Ojai and sat on the boards of the Ojai Shakespeare Festival and the Ventura County Community Foundation.

"Bruce was extremely bright. He could narrow an issue very succinctly and to the point," said Marty de los Cobos, vice president of public affairs and development for the foundation. "This was a terrible tragedy and a shock to us all. He was a real intellectual, but also a guy you could talk to."

Wallace's passion was paragliding--a sport in which a large overhead chute is manipulated to catch the wind and sail on thermal currents. His stories occasionally terrified people.

"He once told me he fell into a tree near Santa Ynez and had to wait for hikers to come and get him down," Gray said. "He loved pushing the envelope."

Exactly what went wrong Friday is still unknown.

Before crashing, Wallace radioed his friends to say that he was flying near Whitney Portal, sheriff's officials said. But it's unclear what happened afterward.

"I've talked to his buddies who were flying with him, and I've got various theories," said his brother, Doug Wallace, a San Diego surgeon. "The gist of it is, he got into a descending spiral. His chute partially collapsed, he went into a spin and couldn't recover."

Rescue aircraft searched the eastern side of the mountains Saturday with no luck. Shortly before noon Sunday, a downed paraglider was spotted near a 12,000-foot ridge between Tuttle and Diaz creeks, authorities said. Wallace's body was flown to a Lone Pine hospital and picked up by coroner's officials.

In addition to his brother, Wallace is survived by his wife, Marilyn, and four children. A private memorial service will be held Saturday.

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