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Friday, December 01, 2006

Remembering December 1, 1994

Today we recall the events of December 1, 1994 in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

On that day, three friends and colleagues of mine were killed when the helicopter they were riding in crashed. Apparently they developed engine trouble, and when the big blades stop spinning, a helicopter will drop like a stone.

I was scheduled to work as the flight physician the next day. This was my 'moonlighting' job I had while I was a resident and fellow. The risks of a crash were known to all of us, and my way of handling it was to make an act of contrition and pray to my Guardian Angel while the engines warmed up.

I always prayed to God that He must want me to live, since he blessed me with a large family and it just wouldn't be right to make my wife a widow. Whenever I prayed this way, I suddenly would be reminded of all the saints who grew up in a home where the father was missing. St. John Bosco, St. Maria Goretti, Fr. John Hardon, and others would spring to mind. I think it was God's way of telling me to stop trying to make deals with Him.

Once I was taking care of a patient on a transport, I was to preoccupied to think about the dangers of flying. And despite being terrified of heights - I have trouble standing on a ladder - I really loved flying. Every time I went up I would see some beautiful sight, from a beautiful sunset over the Michigan farmlands, to something manmade like the Christmas lights at Domino's Farms. Or in the middle of the night how each small town was a collection of lights in a sea of darkness. To really appreciate what the term 'ceiling' means, when we would fly below the clouds which looked like, well, a ceiling above us.

To see the flashing lights of emergency vehicles waiting for us on a night scene call, and watch them wheel below us as the pilot would turn sharply and drop to bring the helicopter around into the wind for a landing.

To slow to a stop in midair to wave to the passengers in a blimp over Ann Arbor.

The summertime flights where the pilot would ask us if we wanted the air conditioning on, which would slow us down a little, or keep it off to hasten the transport. No matter how hot it was in the back, the answer was always 'no air conditioning.'

The takeoffs from in front of Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, where we had to stay outside the helicopter as far away and as late as possible, crouching on the ground with our headphones stretched to the limit because we had to make sure someone didn't try to approach the helicopter as it fired up its engines.

The winter night flights, where the mannitol we carried would crysatlize, and where all one wanted was to crawl into bed. Instead I would spend the night huddled in a five point restraint, thinking about my wife and listening to the chatter on the radio as the ground crawled below.

The time we buzzed my house, circling it and seeing the lights of the neighbor's houses spring on.

This was the first time in my life that someone close to me in age had ever died, and the fact that it could have been me is something I have thought about every day for the last twelve years. One would hope that having this thought, and seeing so many others die in my line of work that I would be ever mindful of being a good man and a pillar of virtue. This is not the case. I think for about 48 hours after the helicopter crashed I treated my wife and children more charitably than I ever have. After that, I was back to my same old self: impatient, selfish, lazy, and all those other characteristics I had tried to pitch.

So today, like every other day, unless I fall asleep too soon, I pray an act of contrition, resolve to sin no more, and keep close to the Sacraments. I know that one day I will end up just like those who died - Rick, Jan and Terry - and never again see the 'three in the green' - the lights that indicate that the landing gear is safely down, and that soon we will be safely on the ground again.


antonia said...

It's always kinda scary to be reminded of how vulnerable the gift of our life is.

Eternal Rest Grant Unto Them Oh Lord, May Your Perpetual Light Sine Upon Them May They Rest in Peace. Amen.

dadwithnoisykids said...

Well said. I realized after posting that I should have requested prayers for them.

Thanks, Antonia! God bless you.

therese said...

Very beautiful post.

Mac McLernon said...

Very moving post.

I did a post a couple of days ago explaining how I "missed" being killed in a really bad car crash.

No-one died (unlike the tragedy you recount) but I had real problems understanding why, when I felt I was "ready" and would have exited this life with a prayer on my lips, I survived. I felt as if I'd got to the gates and been turned away...

I was told, in no uncertain terms, that this was nonsense: my SD said that my work on earth just wasn't finished yet, that there were so many more prayers to say, and more to offer up.

You use the name "dadwithnoisykids" - any of them under 12? Be sure that your friends are praying for you and yours, as you pray for (and remember)them.

dadwithnoisykids said...

Thank you, Mac!

Wifeofdadwithnoisykids was pregnant with Noisykid #5 at the time of the crash. Noisykid #6 came along the following year.

There would have been no Texas Noisykids - six so far....

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