In December, 1994 we were living in St. Charles MO. I was working on an irregular basis as a “temp” paralegal for a large law firm in downtown St. Louis and as a substitute teacher in two suburban school districts. Anne worked as a secretary at The Jewish Center for the aged, an upscale nursing home in Chesterfield MO. We were living a pleasant life and looking forward to driving to Springfield MO to spend Christmas with two or our children and their families. Our youngest son, Nate, had been hired some six months earlier as a pilot for “SkyWest Airlines” which was a definite step up for him. His ultimate goal was to fly for a major airline and SkyWest would be a “gold star” on his resume. The fact that he would be based in Palm Springs CA was icing on the cake for he had also dreamed of living in CA.
We named her "The Blue Feather"
His career had been on a fast track since high school. He had received his Private Pilot’s License on his 16th birthday, had graduated high school in three years and then “doubled-down” to graduate from college with a B.S. in Aviation in 3 years. His first job after college was as a pilot for a rather shoddy commuter airline based in the Midwest. He was ecstatic and we were “busting our buttons” proud of our fifth child.
On a late December afternoon I was sitting alone at home when the phone rang. The message I received in the next few minutes was a ticket to a “hell” that no parent should ever have to enter. The caller identified himself as an executive for SkyWest Airlines, and went on to tell me that our son had been in an airplane accident and was in the Intensive Care Unit in the Palm Springs hospital. He knew very little more other than the fact that the accident happened when Nathan was flying “our” little two-seat “American Yankee.” He went on to say that courtesy tickets for Anne and me to fly to Palm Springs would be waiting for us at the Delta Ticket counter. I ended the call and tried to digest what I had heard. Then realizing that my wife would be home at any minute it dawned on me that I was going to have to tell her that our youngest child was lying in Intensive Care in a hospital some 2,000 miles away. Our pleasant world had crashed along with that airplane.
The following morning we boarded a plane and sat in silence for the hours it took to make the flight. Both of us were deep into ourselves, praying, thinking, imagining. The words "God’s will be done” just wouldn’t pass my lips as I knew it should. No, I was pleading with God to spare our child. I was also dealing with the guilt of feeling that I was responsible for Nathan being where he was. I had groomed him to be a pilot since he was 9 years old and then had flown our small airplane from St. Louis to Palm Springs with the intention of leaving it with him to “play with” while I suffered through a Midwestern winter. As I watched the plains and mountains pass beneath our wings my heart was filled with “Why did I’s, “If only I’s” and “Please, God.”
Nathan Carriker - 25th Birthday - 1994
(Note the "Kydex" vest from chest to waist, fully around his body)
In his playfulness with the airplane Nate, with a fellow pilot riding alongside him, had mistakenly turned into a “blind canyon” in the Santa Rosa Mountains near Palm Springs. A “blind canyon” is like a cul-de-sac in city streets. When an airplane flies into a blind canyon, however, there is seldom enough space for the pilot to turn around and go back. At the end of a blind canyon the pilot is looking at a hard, steep mountain slope that rises too high, too quickly for the airplane to be able to fly over. There is no escape. Once a pilot enters a blind canyon he will crash the airplane.
The airplane came to rest almost upside down with both Nathan and his passenger held in by their seat belts. Jim, his passenger, sustained a good-sized gash in his forehead when his head hit the instrument panel but was otherwise all right. He managed to get Nathan out of the cockpit, lie him down on the ground next to the plane and cover him with the canvas cover we used to cover the cockpit when the plane was tied down. He then walked back to "civilization" found a phone and called 911. It was well into the night by then so no rescue could be mounted. Nate, now paralyzed from his waist down, lay on the ground until daybreak listening to the animal life moving around him, becoming quite cold and very much needing to urinate - which he could not do since the muscles in his lower body were paralyzed. As soon as daylight permitted the sheriff's department's small helicopter found the wreckage. It was too small to carry Nathan lengthwise inside the cockpit. They laid him sideways with part of his head and feet sticking out. A very brave, caring Deputy Sheriff, breaking strict departmental rules, risking his life, rode from the crash site to the hospital standing on the helicopter skid and holding on inside as best he could. He should've gotten a medal. What he got was a reprimand and an order to write up a full report explaining his action. An unsung hero.
I didn’t know all that and really didn’t care when Anne and I entered Palm Spring Hospital’s ICU. Nate was drowsy, semi-conscious from pain killing drugs, had several lacerations on his face and was hooked up to all the machines expected in an ICU. Because he had been working out regularly for the past several months and was otherwise in strong physical condition they were soon able to stabilize him and move him to a hospital room. In the crash the belly of the airplane had slammed into a large rock directly under Nate’s seat with such force that it shattered two vertebrae. He was alive but paralyzed from the waist down. Our son was a paraplegic. His bright career had come to an end. So it seemed. And his 25th birthday was December 21, 1994: Christmas four days away.
The Crash in Martinez Canyon - Santa Rosa Mts.
Background landscape is a steep slope
One of the three rocks on left tore into the bottom of the airplane
directly beneath pilot's seat
Christmas Day we went to Mass. In a display of bitter irony someone positioned a lady in a wheel chair at the end of the pew in which we were sitting. As I sat trying to pray and concentrate on the miracle of God’s becoming a Man I could focus only on that paralyzed lady in a wheel chair. Sometime before the consecration my anger arose and consumed me. I stormed out of the church and into the parking lot where my anger exploded. I threw my head back and screamed to God; berating Him for His unfairness. Then I sat in our rental car, put my head on the steering wheel and wept in anguished pain. I was weeping for my son and weeping for the things I had just screamed to God. Fortunately God is loving and forgiving.
Shortly after Christmas, Nathan was moved to Loma Linda Hospital to begin a program of rehabilitation and physical therapy. Anne could not stay, she had full time employment. Being a “temp” and a substitute I simply took my name off the available list and rented a small studio apartment across the street from the hospital. I “lived” at the hospital, however, keeping Nate company as best I could while he was in his room and accompanying him each time they wheeled him to the Physical Therapy unit. Watching him take physical therapy was a horror. They placed him on a knee-high “mattress,” massaged and exercised his legs and let him try to move his legs by himself. I watched him literally sweat from the passion of trying to will his dead legs to move. There were times when I excused myself to “go to the bathroom” so that I could go out into the hallway and cry. I didn’t want him to see me. I was emotionally in the depths of hell. And there were days when I was in his room watching him sleep when I would put my hands on his legs and beg God to take the strength from my legs and give it to Nate.
On a morning about two weeks from the time he entered Loma Linda I came into his room. He said, “I wiggled my big toe.” Then with great effort he demonstrated. Sure enough he was able to move the tip of his toe a 16th of an inch or less. But it was movement. We both rejoiced.
This story could go on for many pages. I stayed at Loma Linda long enough to see him begin working on the parallel bars, dragging his feet, trying to make them move. A week or so later I watched him “walk” on crutches. The therapy continued for months with Nathan exerting an almost superhuman effort of will. Of course he prayed as did my wife and I. Scores of people were praying for him. His doctor, however, continued to tell him he would never walk again, his spinal cord had been too badly injured.
But there is an end to this story. An end that proclaims loudly what can happen when a person adds days of agonizingly hard work to the grace and power of God. A miracle was granted. One year, exactly, from the day Nathan crashed our airplane he climbed a set of stairs, got into the cockpit and slid into the co-pilot’s seat. He was once again flying for SkyWest. Today, Nathan is still pursuing his career as an airline pilot, now with a major airline. So if you should board an airplane someday and hear the hear the Flight Attendant announce “Our First Officer today is Nathan Carriker,” you will know that living proof of a miracle is sitting in front of you, piloting your airplane.
Nathan has written his story of this Christmas. You may read it on this site: http://www.nathancarriker.com/2009/12/christmas-in-kydex.html
Nathan G. Carriker and his
Older sister Alicia Williamson
Thanksgiving Day Two Years After The Accident
That Left Him a Paraplegic
What an awesome story Don! We've all heard of stories like this but few have experienced this kind of thing up close and personal. I am shocked that he was able to survive a crash like that at all. No doubt he used his skill to steer the plane at the last possible second to make the least threatening hit. I can only imagine the scare.
The fact that he's back in the cockpit again is yet another amazing triumph. I can't wait to someday meet you both. I'm going to ready Nate's account of this event.
It's the only story I've written that I would rather not have experienced. Nate is an exceptionally good pilot. He and an airplane just "become one." We can never thank God enough for the miracle He gave us.
Don, piloting aside, we both know it is by the grace of both Jesus and His Father that these miracles are granted... after all we can do! My heart was with you as I read this story. Faith overcomes fear--and this is proof. Thanks for sharing this "heart-throb" story.
Grace,truly. "Yep," Nate is our walking miracle. He "worked" the formula,"Work as if everything depends upon you, pray as if everything depends upon God and accept that the outcome is His will."
To inspire others - that's the purpose I had in sharing this story. NEVER believe it when a doctor tells you that a "cure" (for whatever) is not going to happen. Only God knows that. I had some very critical words for the doctor who told us that. I suggested that he tell people that it is "unlikely" that they will be "cured." God-like pronouncements are wrong.