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A Harrowing Plane Crash Inspires a Powerful Ask

Posted by Bill Henningsgaard

a-harrowing-plane-crash-inspires-a-powerful-ask.jpgTen days ago, I took off in a small plane from Astoria, taking my 84 year old mother up to Seattle to watch my daughter Lucy, aged 15, in her high school play.

Ten minutes into the flight, at 8000 feet and already across the Columbia River and over the Washington coast, the engine coughed briefly.  Ten seconds later it died.

I forced myself to confront that fact that the situation any pilot fears – a mid-air emergency, was happening right then, with my mother in the plane.  I  turned the plane around to try to glide back to the airport, and focused on trying to restart the engine.

If you saw the newspaper coverage, you’ll know that we didn’t make it back to the airport, and the engine didn’t kick back alive.  After a harrowing five minutes in the air, we crashed into the water in front of Astoria, thankfully alive and able to scramble out onto the wing.

We caught our breath, standing on that wing.  Cold water was running over our feet, but the plane surprisingly wasn’t sinking.   Looking at the shore a couple hundred yards away, I was relieved.  “It’s going to be OK”, I said.  “We’re going to make it.”

“I can’t swim,” my mom reminded me, flatly.

I’d grown up knowing that my mother’s brother Bill, my namesake, had drowned at 13.  Mom had always feared the water, not even wading with us at the lake.  The realization that I’d put her face to face with her worst fear slammed into me.

Fire trucks pulled up on the shore, their lights flashing, but too far to hear the sirens.  Even as I tried to convince my mom that we could, together, make our way to them, I remembered something from the previous summer.  I had tried to swim one-handed, keeping my clothes and shoes dry in the other hand.  Half the distance in warm, flat water – I’d gotten winded.   Now – it would be the two of us, out in the choppy, cold river water, trying to stay afloat and make headway across the strong current.

I described how we’d swim together, dredging up techniques learned 40 years earlier, but they rang hollow.   “You’ll have to leave me,” she said, with both fear and acceptance.

The plane was starting to pitch forward, being pulled toward the bottom by the heavy engine, causing the wing we were standing on to start to tilt.  When the plane went nose-down, we’d be in the water.

I’d like to tell you I felt brave and confident at that moment, that I knew we’d make it.  But what I felt was fear.  Fear of the exhaustion and panic and very possibly death as we tried for shore.  Desperation that I couldn’t come up with any alternative to trying to make that swim.  Shame that I put my mother into this situation.

What I didn’t know in that moment was that a bar pilot in his office on the waterfront had seen our plane whistle down toward the water.  Even before we splashed down, he’d called 911 and also alerted the crew of the Arrow, the launch that brings pilots out to ships entering the river.   As my mother and I stood on that wing, the crew was casting off lines and leaving the dock.

Seeing that boat coming toward us, even from a distance, flooded me with relief.  I’d been telling my mother we’d make it, but now I actually knew that was true.  That moment stands out in my memory like a blessing, a gift.  Seeing that boat meant that we were going to live.

As the boat neared, the crew threw my mother a life jacket, then one to me.  I had to help her put it on – joint problems have left her unable to lift her arms above her shoulders.


Maneuvering close, they tossed a lifeline and ring to her.   My mom grabbed the ring with both arms and, overcoming her fear, jumped into the river.  Having lived in Astoria for over 60 years, including serving as mayor, it’s the first time she’d ever been in the water.  Within minutes, we were both onboard and on our way to shore.


I can’t tell you whether someone somewhere was trying to send me a message in pulling me off that wing.

But I can tell you I got one.

The people who pulled us off that boat, and who tended to and helped us afterwards – were doing what we’re all here to do – to help each other.

That community came together to be there when my mother and I needed help, in a way that we couldn’t have expected, we didn’t earn and we will never be able to thank.

Why am I telling you this now?


Because there are kids, right here in Bellevue, Kirkland, Redmond, Sammamish standing on that wing right now.  They’re feeling alone, without hope, maybe afraid to ask parents or schools for help, maybe even unaware there is any help to be had.  There are parents who see their children, most precious to them in the world, struggling to cope and in despair because they don’t know how to rescue them.

There’s a myth in this country of rugged individualism — people who are down pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get on with their life.

That’s always made sense to me. And if you’re lucky, you can live your whole life believing that’s enough.  But when circumstances put you on that wing, you realize any person, any family, might need help.

eastsideI’ve been connected to Youth Eastside Services for over ten years.  I’ve had the privilege to get to know many of the counselors that dedicate their lives to this work.  They have the skills, experience, the empathy, the passion to reach these parents, these kids where they live, in schools, in community centers.  To give them hope, convince them that they mean something, that they have the courage and strength to work past their challenges, and that the community cares that they succeed.

You’ve heard today from three young people who were given that hope. Help YES be that lifeline for the kids and families that need help – and especially for those not fortunate enough to be able to pay for it.  Because, unlike my story, they don’t write newspaper articles about the ones who make it.  Just those who don’t.

The Origin of this Story: A Confluence of Threads

microAbout 11 years ago, I joined the board of Youth Eastside Services, based in Bellevue.  At the time, I was working at Microsoft, raising a young family with my wife Susan, but was not particularly engaged in the local community.  I’d always expected to be involved in local organizations, having been raised in a household where my parents, particularly my mother, was involved in the Red Cross, United Way, Rotary, the hospital, the church, et cetera in the small town of Astoria, Oregon where we lived.

After joining SVP in 1998, Paul and I had a conversation about my desire to get engaged.  YES at that time had recently been awarded one of the initial capacity building grants from SVP’s first out of school grant committee.  He introduced me to their ED, Patti Skelton, which led to my joining the board.

I presented this story at YES’ annual breakfast on May 7.  By coincidence, at the time of the event described I was enrolled in a story-telling class hosted by SVP.  So this story is very much a confluence of several important threads in my life – SVP, YES, my family and, of course, aviation.

Youth images courtesy of Youth Eastside Services.


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