Surviving the Plane Crash that Kills His Family
By Amy Reid
The 700 Club
Flight. From the time he was a little boy, it was what Joe Townsend dreamed of. When he became a pilot for a commercial airline, Joe was ‘livin’ the dream’.
One weekend, Joe was flying his wife, Kelly, and two young daughters, Laura and Tara, home from a family vacation. Shortly after takeoff, their small plane developed engine trouble and lost power.
Volunteer fire chief Sheldon Conger was the first to arrive at the scene of the crash. “When we first pulled up on the scene it didn’t look like there was gonna be survivors,” Sheldon recalls. “It appeared it had took a nosedive and the engine and the instrument gages in the dash was all rolled back into Joe’s face and in his chest and all and was actually laying on top of him.”
Russell Gay was next to arrive. “Somebody heard a child--child was in the back behind the pilot and it was still alive and started crying so we just started taking the plane apart by hand,” says Russell. “And in the process we realized the pilot was still alive.”
On impact, Joe’s forehead had collided with the instrument panel. The artificial horizon knob broke through his skull, damaging the areas of the brain that control motor skills and balance. Joe could no longer see or move, but getting anyone out of the plane safely was a challenge that day.
“The first thing I noticed when I got out of the truck was the smell of plane fuel,” Russell recalls. “It was just everywhere. We had a front coming in from the northwest, lightning popping. We was so afraid we was gonna cause a spark or a fire. At that point a fire would’ve took everybody out. God had His hand in every bit of it because we wouldn’t have never got any of ‘em out without that. We got him loaded in the ambulance and it was sorta in God’s hands then, sure enough. I honestly didn’t think the guy would ever make it as bad as he was.”
Joe’s injuries were catastrophic. His left leg was broken in three places and his right arm was deeply cut from reaching out to shield his daughter. During the crash, Joe’s ankles split apart, separating his feet from his legs. Both his kneecaps were broken, and he had internal injuries from colliding with the steering yoke.
Brandon Fletcher remembers that day. “When we have bad calls like that, the first thing that goes through my mind a lot is, ‘God be with them. Help them, but most of all, help us.’ We need all the direction and guidance we can get in situations like that. There was a lot of praying going on that morning.”
Joe and his youngest daughter, Tara, were rushed to Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital. Tara died in surgery. Joe was given multiple blood transfusions, which caused a clot that led to cardiac arrest. Then, he suffered a stroke and went into a coma. When he woke up ten days later, he started asking questions. “I asked the nurse, ‘Where is Kelly? Where’s Laura? Where’s Tara? Where are they? They should be here,’” Joe remembers. “She said, ‘They’re in heaven.’ I said, “’No, you don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
The next morning, family members confirmed the news. “And that was the worst day of my life,” says Joe.
Joe learned that his wife and daughters had already been buried. He never had a chance to say goodbye. “I sobbed so hard,” Joe recalls. “The sobbing was like a knife was in my chest, in my heart, turning. And I finally cried out, ‘Lord, help me.’ And amazingly, within 30 seconds after crying out - complete peace.”
A few days later, he was transferred to St. Mary’s hospital’s rehabilitation program. His vision began coming back and Joe started the daunting task of learning to walk again. “Even as messed up as I was, where I could not do anything for myself, I would never give up,” says Joe. “And I always had hope.”
During his recovery, Joe had a lot of visitors—including his neighbor, Mark, who was a strong Christian. He asked Joe a piercing question: ‘How would you like to see Kelly and the girls again?’ Joe remembers the conversation that followed.
“I said, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Well, there’s an easy way to do that. Accept Jesus into your heart and then you can see them again when that time comes.’ Romans 10:9; that’s the scripture he quoted, that, ‘If you believe in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, you will be saved.’ And that’s what I did.”
But the tough times weren’t over. Joe dealt with constant frustration and a depression so deep it overwhelmed him. “So I prayed for the Lord to take me,” says Joe. “And I did that for a couple of weeks. After a couple of weeks I’m still here. And I said ‘Well, okay, Lord, if You’re not going to take me, then leave me here and I’ll try to do the best I can.’ My newfound faith helped me to get through the trials that I had to go through.”
Over the next year, Joe went from using a wheelchair to a walker to a cane. Eventually, he was able to walk again on his own. “I feel that my body healed because of my faith and also my willingness to fight, to never give up,” says Joe.
Today, Joe has remarried and has a full life. He hopes to fly a plane again someday. Joe says God gives him the strength to carry on. “There’s a poem, Footprints in the Sand. I’ve had some tough times and through the adversity that I had to face, I leaned on the Lord to carry me,” says Joe. “And that’s when He was there for me.”
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