Face To Face With Death
In our missionary journeys, the Lord sometimes allows us, to make some extra ordinary trying experiences. Recently I was traveling to the Marquesa Islands together with another brother, a 65-year-old ordained elder. The Marquesas are known for being dangerous. There are no plains and the region is very mountainous.
The local airport is on the top of a mountain, which has been flattened for use as an airstrip. The landing strip is not straight; it has a curve! This is the first airstrip I have ever seen built that way. Commercial airplanes bring passengers to the big island and then small airplanes commute between the main island and the little islands. We were on a small Dorney aircraft (for approximately 20 passengers), on Wednesday, April 17, 1991, planning to fly back to Tahiti the next day. Something had happened and the brethren wanted me to stay one more Sabbath with them. I called my wife and told her about it. “No, you should not stay there,” she said, “because they are waiting for you here, for the Lord’s Supper this Sabbath.” Against my inclinations, we went on to the local airport. It was about 3 kilometers away. It took us 45 minute, traveling by horseback because the conditions of the ways did not permit modern means of transportation.
When we arrived at the airfield, I was talking with the brethren in the parking lot while I gave my ticket to a sister to check in for me, I said, “I don’t have any desire to leave.” Five minutes after we had boarded the 2 engine plane, we were airborne. From that small island to the big one, the flying time was to be about 40 minutes.
Thirty minutes later, our little airplane was flying at an altitude 1,000, meters over the top of the big mountain, near the central airport. I was sitting in the first row immediately behind the co-pilot. Between the passengers and the pilot there was no door, so I could see and hear everything. While the pilot was trying to maneuver the plane, the right engine stopped. Two or three seconds later, the left engine also stopped. I could see the red lights coming on, announcing danger ahead. The co-pilot said to the pilot: “Let’s do our best to land in the airfield.” The pilot said, “No, if we try to land in the airfield, with the gas that is in the gas tank the airplane will explode and there will be no survivors! Let’s try to land in the ocean.”
This was the first time I had ever seen death right before my eyes. When you stand face to face with death, you have terrible sensations. This was my case.
So, I unbuckled my seat belt in order to turn around to see the brother who was traveling with me, seated in the back of the plane. There was smoke in the back and everybody was screaming and shouting, while the airplane was losing altitude. Most of the people there were Catholics and they were crying: “Virgin Mary, save us.” These people perished in the accident.
As I could not see my brother, I sat down again, and the airplane made a nosedive into the sea. I thought at that moment, “Lord, here I am. Whether I have to live or die I accept what is coming; You make the decision.” I could not even buckle up my seat belt again. I just repeated, “Lord, You make the decision.” There was a terrible crash 60-100 meters from dry land. The depth of the sea there was 20-30 meters. The airplane plunged into the water and bounced and then floated. The cockpit opened but did not get separated from the rest of the airplane.
At the moment of the crash, everyone aboard passed out. The picture was catastrophic. The nose of the airplane was smashed. The co-pilot could not get out and was crushed. The pilot had been ejected from the cockpit and so had I. The wings of the airplane were floating above the water, but the fuselage was under water. When I regained consciousness, I was floating next to the cockpit and the right wing. The other brother was also floating next to me. The ones on top of the wings grabbed him and helped him onto the top of the wings. Then they grabbed me by my broken arm that was dangling—you can see the scars from the surgery. My left arm, my skull, and nine ribs were fractured.
The pilot, full of cuts and bruises (even the tendon of his foot was cut), was on top of the wings shouting, pull them onto the airplane! Pull them! Quick, onto the plane.” There were sharks around. As he was behind me, I think he could see some of them.
The first-aid team came in a fishing boat and they had no idea how to act. While they were removing us from the aircraft, I said to the brother who was in a severe state of shock, “The most important thing is that God has saved us; it doesn’t matter that we are cut and bruised.” He just smiled at me.
Those men that came to help just grabbed us one by one and threw us into the fishing boat. That was the first-aid we got! I was quietly lying in a corner while others were being thrown one on top of the other. One man was howling with pain; his leg had been cut off and left in the sea. It was a terrible scene!
They put us under a shed—a roof over a concrete slab. Everyone was put there—the wounded, the dead, and the dying. Some with broken arms and legs, were howling in pain. Finally the real first aid arrived from Tahiti.
I heard the doctor saying to his assistance, “Leave this one alone; he is dead”; “That one is also dead.”; “Take this one to Papeete immediately.” I was one of the last ones to be examined by the doctor. They told me, “We cannot take you right away; you must be operated on right here.” All of the survivors were gone except me. There were ten dead bodies, and there were ten survivors, four of whom died afterwards.
The accident occurred around 11:30 a.m., and I received first aid only at 7 p.m. They had to take the survivors to Tahiti and only then did they begin treating me. Several times I passed out, woke up, and then passed out again. There were no ambulances and hospitals and they took me in a small pickup truck to a little first-aid station in a nearby village. There they began to pump water and gasoline out of my stomach. I had gasoline in my lungs also. The doctor said, “We will examine you further because your spleen is perforated; if we transport you to Tahiti now, you will die on the way.” I did not believe that my spleen was perforated, and a little later the doctor also dropped his concern about that.
The problem was I had gasoline in my lungs, a fractured skull, a broken arm, and nine broken ribs! I said to myself, “It would be foolish to think of dying now. God has saved me from the accident because He wants to keep me alive.” So I was put on an oxygen mask and got intravenous feeding. I was full of tubes and needles all over. A tube was also introduced into my bladder. Someone was brought especially from Papeete to take care of me at that first-aid station.
The next morning I heard the lady doctor calling the authorities in Papeete. I was in the next room and could hear her say: “It is impossible. He has only 8 hours to live. If you come later he will be dead.” To me her request seemed impossible, because a commercial airplane takes five hours to come from Papeete to the main Marquesa island. Then she said, “We will prepare the patient.” So they removed me from the first-aid station as my physical resistance was getting lower.
I began to ask the Lord, “Why did You permit this to happen?” While suffering terrible pain, I was put on a little fishing boat and taken to the airport. The doctor said to me, “You cannot sleep. Keep talking. If you fall asleep, that’s it. Please tell me what you are thinking. What is going through your mind?” Two men were holding the stretcher because the boat was rocking, while another man was holding the oxygen mask, and another was holding the intravenous bag, etc. I think there were six men. The doctor by my side was saying, “Talk to me. What can you see?” I told her, “I don’t feel sick, I feel well.” I had the impression I was on a flying carpet, floating in the air. She kept asking me. “What do you see?” “Now I do not feel anything, I am floating. She urged me, “Come back to earth. Stop floating or you’ll die.”
When we got to the airport, there was a special airplane that had taken three hour to arrive from Papeete. There was a doctor aboard, and I was the only passenger—a government airplane just for me. In three hours we were back in Papeete.
On the airplane, whenever I began to sleep, I had a nightmare—I rehearsed the airplane crash. I tried to get hold of something—anything I could grab—just to hold onto something. Upon our arrival, the president and the chief authorities of Tahiti were there to see me and ask me how I was feeling. I got first aid inside the ambulance on the way to the hospital, where I was to stay for one week to be strengthened before I could be taken to New Zealand or France. But that was not necessary, because I regained strength quickly. For one week I had moments of consciousness and unconsciousness.
The second week I was a bit better. Whenever I was conscious I asked the Lord, “Why? You promised to protect your servants through your angels. Why did you not send at least one angel to protect them that serve You?” In those difficult moments, the devil was tempting me, “Can you see?” Someone who came to visit me said, “If you were not in the missionary work, this would not have happened to you.” There was confusion in my mind. I said, “Lord, You have the answer.”
It was during this second week that I opened my Bible for the first time after the accident, and I read the first verse I put my finger on—Psalm 34:19, “Many are the afflictions of the righteous: but the lord delivereth them out of them all.” When I read this verse, I said, “Thank you, Lord, You have given me the answer.” Afflictions will surely come to the righteous, but God delivers them out of them all.
I stayed in the hospital for three weeks and, except for the brother who was with me, and who had received other minor injuries, I was the first to be released from all the others that had been in the accident.
I leave this experience with you together with psalms 34:19. Do not forget the Lord’s Promises.
I thank you all for your prayers while I was in the hospital. I am sure that your prayers speeded up my recovery, and I had one more evidence that God is still working miracles in behalf of His servants.