RIALTO — If it had not been for a disastrous plane flight on Sept. 8, 1974, Steve Meyering, then 23, very likely would still be loading packages onto United Parcel Service trucks in San Bernardino.
Instead, he is a physician.
On that warm, fall afternoon almost 11 years ago, the breeze felt especially good to Meyering as his friend Dave Williamson gunned the single-engined plane along the runway at the tiny Rialto Airport.
Meyering relaxed, enjoying the sensation of his 6-foot-1-inch frame being pressed back in the passenger seat as the Piper Comanche gained speed and climbed above the tract houses built on desert sand just west of San Bernardino.
The young men banked northeast over San Bernardino National Forest and decided to check out Lake Arrowhead. Then they headed east to have a look at Deep Creek.
Williamson, then a steelworker in his late 20s, spotted Deep Creek, turned north and flew placidly above the glistening thread of water.
He dipped down for a closer look, and found himself flying inside the canyon. It was early evening, the light was exquisitely soft on the canyon walls.
Suddenly, without warning and for no apparent reason, the engine died. It simply stopped in midair. Later it was determined that a fuel valve may have jammed.
Meyering folded his arms across his chest. "I didn't want to grab the wheel and interfere with what little control Dave had of the plane," he said.
Frantic Midair Effort
Williamson struggled frantically and fruitlessly to start the motor. Then, just before flying straight into the rocky canyon wall, he pulled the plane's nose up sharply and pancaked into a tiny clearing.
Meyering broke his jaw in five places, had his nose half-torn from his face, smashed his right foot, broke his back, suffered third-degree burns over the front and sides of both legs and was paralyzed below the waist. Williamson had similar injuries, though he was not burned, and he miraculously escaped paralysis despite his broken back.
Williamson crawled over his friend's unconscious body and fell from the plane. Two hours later he had enough strength to pull Meyering out.
That night Meyering regained consciousness and tried to talk, but Williamson couldn't understand him.
The nights were crisp, the days were hot and the rocks were hard.
After the second night, Williamson labored for eight horribly painful hours, crawling 200 yards down the canyon for water. Unlike the canyon walls, the creek was lined with dry brush. Figuring it was his only chance to attract attention--and to survive--Williamson threw a lighted match into the brush.
It took only a few minutes for the liquid-dropping bombers to arrive. Shortly after that, firefighters leaped from a helicopter and found Williamson covered with bright orange borate fire retardant and half suffocated by it.
Williamson told his rescuers his friend was with the plane. One of them climbed to the aircraft, and radioed back three words: "This one's dead." When Williamson heard that he said, "He wasn't dead eight hours ago. Check again." The radio crackled once more to say Meyering was alive after all.
Rescuers airlifted both men out of the mountains by helicopter. Williamson ended up at Kaiser Foundation Hospital in Fontana. His friend, Jay Smith, a Bloomington insurance adjuster, said Williamson has moved to Lee Vining, and has recovered from the accident except for continuing severe lower back pain and a crushed right foot that causes him to limp.
After the crash, Meyering spent five months hospitalized at the San Bernardino County Medical Center. They were months that changed his life.
His jaw was wired shut, 18% to 20% of his body was burned. He couldn't move his legs and doctors at first were not sure if he'd live.
Meyering said there was one thing they did seem sure of: he would not walk again.
As Meyering remembers it, Dr. Donald Brecht delivered that devastating message a few days after Meyering got to the hospital's burn ward. Brecht then pulled the curtains around Meyering's bed and left the room. Harsh as the act sounds in the telling, Meyering felt a consummate tenderness and concern from the doctor. But he also felt gut-wrenching fear.
"I was terrified for the first time that this was not a game," Meyering recalled. "In about two hours I went through all six stages of grieving (shock and denial, bargaining, anger, depression, acceptance, hope). Then I can remember taking it on as a challenge, and thinking, 'By God, I'm going to beat it.' "
Meyering made another momentous, dramatic decision in those two hours: He would become a physician.
"It was an immediate decision to become a doctor," said the young man who had quit Cal State San Bernardino in the middle of his sophomore year, not quite four years before his accident.
A Shift of Consciousness