Faith, ‘angels’ lift plane crash survivor

.- Mike Hemmer can’t remember the plane crash that left him critically injured last Lent, but he does recall the awe he felt when a priest anointed him a few days later in an Amsterdam hospital. “I remember just kind of an overwhelming feeling of wow, this is for me,” said Hemmer, who has always had a strong Catholic faith. “It was powerful.”

God’s grace has been evident in many ways for Hemmer, his wife Shirley, and their three children in the year since the 2009 Ash Wednesday crash that injured 86 and claimed the lives of nine people, including three of Hemmer’s Boeing colleagues sitting nearby.

The Hemmers, active members of St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Federal Way, Washington, have been helped by countless earthly angels, starting with the medic who knew that Hemmer’s survival depended on being airlifted from the crash scene.

“If they hadn’t, he wouldn’t have made it,” Shirley Hemmer said.

In Amsterdam, a pair of Boeing employees took Shirley under their wing. Back home, people all over the Puget Sound area prayed for Hemmer’s recovery. Friends and family members stayed with the kids. And scores of people tackled household chores for the family.

No ordinary day

Shirley Hemmer remembers Feb. 25, 2009, starting as a typical weekday. Her teenagers, Jennifer and Eric, had left for school. Her daughter Abby, a student at St. Vincent de Paul School, was just getting up.

Mike, a Boeing test manager, was returning via Amsterdam from a business trip to Turkey. He was planning to pick up some tortellini for Jennifer’s 18th birthday celebration that night.

The family’s world changed when Shirley saw a TV report about a Turkish Airlines plane crashing short of the runway in Amsterdam.

“I knew it was his plane. Of course, I denied it at first,” Shirley said, checking Mike’s itinerary to be sure.

Shirley decided to stay home with Abby, and called St. Vincent School Principal Wanda Stewart to tell her what was happening. Stewart offered to send someone to be with Shirley.

“Within an hour someone was here,” Shirley said. “Just with that one phone call, I had the support. It was amazing.”

After a “roller-coaster” day, Shirley finally learned that night that Mike was alive, had undergone two surgeries and was lying unconscious in an Amsterdam hospital.

Mike had been sitting in the plane’s third row, in business class. The impact of the crash shattered his upper left arm and caused a compound fracture in his right forearm, broken bones in both legs, a broken nose, a fractured eye socket and two crushed wisdom teeth.

His survival “is truly a miracle,” Shirley said. “The other miracle is that he had no internal injuries, no spinal injuries and no brain injuries,” she said.

Feeling the support

Boeing flew Shirley to Amsterdam to be with Mike. For nearly five weeks, thousands of miles from home, the couple felt the love and concern sent their way. Hundreds of cards — including some made by Abby’s class — were sent to them.

“I would hear about what everybody was doing [back home] and I would be in tears,” Shirley said, overwhelmed by the number of people who wanted to help them.

Mike and Shirley flew home March 31, but Mike still had three weeks of recovery ahead at St. Francis Hospital in Federal Way.

At the couple’s home, some 70 people — fellow parishioners, Boeing workers, neighbors, friends and Boy Scouts — pitched in as “Team Hemmer,” organized under the umbrella of Gloria’s Angels. The nonprofit organization assists families caring for a seriously ill relative. Volunteers made meals, cleaned house, did laundry and took care of the Hemmers’ yard throughout the spring and summer.

“It’s not in our nature to ask for help,” Shirley said. But as the Hemmers learned to accept the help they needed, they discovered the helpers also were enriched by the experience.

“People would come in to clean the house and say, ‘Thank you for letting us do this,’” Shirley said.

Mike’s fellow Knights of Columbus members decided to extend the home’s back deck and build a wheelchair ramp. When it turned out Mike wouldn’t need a ramp, the Knights enlarged the deck for the family to enjoy anyway. “It was just the type of thing that the Knights do,” Mike said.

Drawing strength

Mike’s faith, upbeat personality and sense of humor have helped him through the difficulties of his recovery, including seven surgeries in Amsterdam and three more here.

“Knowing that I was going to come home and see the kids and that I would be able to enjoy life with them, I guess is probably what kept me going as much as anything,” he said.

The whole family drew strength from their faith and each other during Mike’s recovery.

“When we got back, everyone — whether it was teachers, friends or neighbors — just raved about how strong the kids were and what fortitude they showed,” Mike said. He attributes that to the foundation of faith they’ve received at home and by attending Catholic schools.

“Shirley’s always said that in our relationship, I’m the strong one,” Mike said. But through this crisis, “she has just been the absolute rock that’s kept the family together, that kept me together,” he said. “She’s so much stronger than she thought she could be.”

Today, Mike feels about 85 percent of his old self and hopes to be rid of his cane by summer. In everyday life, he’s “trying not to let the little things matter so much anymore. It really is a wakeup call to what’s really important,” he said.

Finding meaning

The big question Mike contemplates is, “Why did I survive and what does God have in store for me?” He wonders if there’s something he’s supposed to do, and believes if God has a new purpose for him, “my life will be guided in that way.”

Shirley believes Mike’s survival has changed other lives.

“Two people said to us, I’m not a religious person, but when I heard about you, I hit my knees and started praying,” she said. An Anglican airport chaplain, who helped locate a priest and was present during Mike’s anointing, said “it was truly inspirational to see how much it meant to Mike to receive that,” Shirley recalled.

And when Mike returned to his job last fall, changes were evident there, too.

“At work, everything is so secular; you can’t even say Merry Christmas,” Mike said. As a manager, he said, there are two things you don’t do: talk about God or touch people. “Since I’ve come back, I’ve gotten more hugs, and more people that have told me they are praying for me,” Mike said.

“The outpouring of care and love that we’ve been shown is just truly overwhelming,” he said. “I see that as a sign of everyone else’s faith.”

Reprinted with permission from The Catholic Northwest Progress, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Seattle, Washington.

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