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~ Memoirs of a grieving mother
My purpose in sharing this with you, is to relay a recent tragedy that claimed the lives of all three of my young children and their father along with two other men, on Thanksgiving eve 2011. Many of you are probably familiar with the accident, but know little about me. So I would also like to give you a brief history of my life.
I have been a Phoenix area resident for about 25 years, 16 of which have been in Gold Canyon, AZ.
I am originally from Anaheim, CA. and the eldest of two children. When I was four years old I became a big sister to Kathleen a beautiful blue -eyed blond haired little girl. Sadly before her second birthday, my sister Kathy was diagnosed with Leukemia. She was hospitalized for the remainder of her life and passed away soon thereafter at the age of two. Kathy was my only sibling. At the tender age of four, I experienced my first lesson about the pain, loneliness, and heartache of losing a loved one.
After the death of my sister, my parents divorced, the stress of losing a child was simply too much for my mother to bear. Consumed by her grief, she was not able to properly care for me, and so my father gained full custody. It was the early 1960s, and it was not at all common for a single man to get full custody of a child. My father briefly contemplated putting me up for adoption. I have vivid memories of going to the adoption agencies with him. I begged him not to give me up, feeling abandoned by everyone that I loved. My tearful pleas finally worked…. And so my dad in his tender twenties, took on the daunting responsibility of raising a little girl as a single father.
It was not without some funny memories as my early childhood activities included daily mismatched socks and motorcycle races…instead of ballet and cooking. But my 27 year old father did the best that he could. He raised me in the Lutheran faith and he worked the weekends as a Sunday school teacher.
During those early years we lived in Redondo Beach, CA and my father was employed in Aeronautics for Hughes Aircraft Company. On his way to work every morning he would take me to my private Lutheran elementary school on the back of his motorcycle…..I was the only kid I knew that went to school this way. Sometimes he would forget to drop me off at school and we ended up at his work place near LAX. I was thrilled to be at the airport where I could watch and marvel at the amazing magic of airplanes. I believe this sparked my life long interest in aviation.
Fast forward to the age of nineteen. I am living in Hawaii and working for American Hawaii Cruises aboard inter-island cruise ships. Meanwhile, my passion for airplanes grew stronger than ever. Finally one day while in port in Honolulu, I went to the airport and took a discovery flight. I was hooked! Wanting more than ever to spend more time around airplanes, I applied to several airlines as a flight attendant just to get my foot in the door. My ultimate goal was to become an airline pilot.
At the age of 21, I was hired as flight attendant for Western Airlines and moved to Salt Lake City. While there, I completed the Private pilot course, continuing on to earn a Commercial pilot certificate, Instrument rating, single and multi-engine ratings, and Flight Instructor certificates. I also met and married my first husband. Shortly after our marriage we relocated to the Phoenix area. I continued with my flight attendant position working concurrently as a pilot.
In the mid nineties, I was a corporate pilot for Cutter Aviation and worked as an air ambulance pilot for Native American Air.
Even though my ambition was to continue moving forward in my career, I wanted a family more than ever. My husband and I tried for ten years to conceive a child. A few trips to a physician confirmed that I would likely never have children because of chronic Endometriosis. I was devastated. We never did have any children, and ultimately we divorced.
Then, in 1998, I experienced a dramatic medical mishap. A perforated ulcer, misdiagnosed as appendicitis nearly cost me my life. Undetected for ten days, I developed Peritonitis and was hospitalized in very grave condition. I clung to life by a thread, in critical care for three weeks. No one, including my physicians believed that I could survive this. Peritonitis is 99% fatal. With my internal organs failing, and my lungs full of pneumonia, I was barely able to breathe or speak. Life saving major surgery followed. No one expected me to survive, but somehow I found the strength and determination to live. Barely able to breath or walk…….I did leave the hospital alive, which was nothing short of a Devine miracle.
Recuperating from that illness took six painful and arduous months of physical therapy. I had just returned to work in the same week when I received another devastating blow…. A biopsy revealed that I had stage I Invasive Ductal Carcinoma otherwise known as Breast cancer. I was thirty-five years old. Discovering this was a complete fluke. Insurance companies did not even cover mammograms until age 40…..there were no detectable lumps….yet something told me to ask my physician for the test. Treatment included lumpectomy surgery and Radiation therapy. Imagine how very lucky and grateful I felt to be alive. My spirit was not broken and through all of the frightening medical experiences I continued on my journey through life and my career path as a pilot.
In 2000, I met my second husband Shawn an America West pilot, and in 2001, we were married.
Things seemed to be looking up, I now had a new job as an airline pilot and a new husband who I loved…..but something was missing. I always wanted a family and felt that I had missed out on that experience while growing up. In 2001, after giving up hope of ever having a child, a seemingly impossible thing happened. At the age of thirty-eight, after all the medical issues, surgeries, and even cancer I discovered that I was pregnant! And I thought that I was just going through the change. Well I was going through a change all right! A baby! What an amazing gift from God, and I will never forget Shawn’s reaction when I broke the news…. over and over and over again, no less than a thousand times he remarked his excitement! He was ecstatic by thoughts of becoming a father and I knew that he would be a good one.
In February of 2002, my daughter Morgan Leigh Perry was born in Scottsdale. She was a beautiful pink healthy baby girl who made all of our dreams come true. But those dreams would soon turn into nightmares when she began having epileptic seizures. Some would last for more than thirty minutes and she would have many seizures daily. She spent a total of six weeks hospitalized. We tried everything to help her, even transferring her from hospital to hospital. I gave up my pilot position and took a two-year leave of absence but I never returned. Morgan needed constant care. We were devastated because here was our beautiful, innocent, baby girl who appeared to be suffering terribly. We did everything we could to provide a safe and comfortable life for her. She was extremely developmentally delayed. The local school system labeled her as Mentally Challenged. Everything that she learned was a big deal and took much effort. She had the muscle tone of a rag doll. We spent years trying conventional and non-conventional epilepsy treatments. I studied everything I could get my hands on about Neurology. I prayed and prayed that God would spare my baby this pain. Hundreds of heartbreaking, tearful days and nights were spent with Morgan as she was hospitalized for multiple tests and ultimately she endured five brain surgeries. At this point I was told that she would never be able to walk or talk. Although she never did become completely seizure free she had less frequent episodes, and she did learn how to walk and talk. One additional deficit the surgeries had left her with was that of partial blindness.
In October of, 2003 my son Logan Jay Perry was born, and in June of 2005, we were blessed with another baby boy, Luke Devon Perry. When Luke was 18 months old he was diagnosed with Autism. Shawn and I were devastated by this news. We had experienced so many difficulties with Morgan that having another special needs child just seemed to be so unfair. Our “typical” son Logan the middle child, between two special needs children was becoming increasing difficult to handle, understandably demanding the attention he needed and deserved.
I was 39 years old at the birth of Morgan, 40 with Logan, and 42 with Luke. In spite of the combination of challenges, I never imagined that I could be so lucky to have the most important job in the world. God had entrusted me as a mother of these three beautiful babies. It was then I knew why I had survived so much pain and struggle in my young life. My future would forever be dedicated to the happiness and well being of my children. But that would not come without a price. My life was stressful dealing with all of the difficulties that were presented while raising special needs children. So many times I would ask God “why me? I am not equipped to deal with this.”
In November of 2006, I returned to my flight attendant position with the airlines, in spite of the fact that it was never my intention to do so. I gave up my lifelong dream of becoming a pilot for a major airline because I wanted to be around for my children. As a flight attendant, I had longevity and much greater control over my schedule. As most parents do, I made many personal sacrifices for all of my children.
In 2009, the years of difficulties finally took an ultimate toll on my marriage to Shawn. Daunted by the thought of being a single mother with three very challenging toddlers, was overwhelming to me.
Our divorce was final in February of 2010. One week later, I had a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. It was also discovered that I had a recurrence….a new malignant tumor. I developed complications and remained hospitalized in San Francisco in critical care for six weeks. I missed my children terribly and felt so alone and helplessly far from home.
When I finally was healed and returned home to Phoenix, my now ex husband Shawn had become increasingly bitter about our divorce. He threatened to take the children from me. He went to a judge and asked for emergency custody of the children citing abuse and neglect. Nothing could have been further from the truth, but now I would have to prove that while waiting out the long court process without my children. The next few months I spent every minute of my time and every dime of my money, defending myself as a mother. My children were my whole life! After supervised visits, CPS reports, multiple drug and alcohol tests, and three court proceedings, the Judge awarded me primary custody of the children, leaving Shawn with scheduled visitation. Shawn was despondent by this decision, and decided to quit his job as a pilot for a major airline. He moved out of town and took up residence and employment in Safford, AZ. He took a position at an Aviation fire fighting company, a company that his father started in 1974. The company had contracts with the US Forest Service, flying the many summer wildfires through out the country.
Meanwhile, struggling financially, I was sometimes so short that I could not afford to put gas in my car or even buy food. I was more determined than ever to make the best of a very difficult situation. My children were the most important part of my life and the only family that I had. Unbeknownst to me, the most difficult struggles and unimaginable pain were looming just around the corner.
Thanksgiving eve, November 23, 2011 my life profoundly changed and life as I knew it, would never, ever be the same again. It was a cool, crisp dark moonless night. Suddenly a large explosion, then a secondary explosion on the majestic Superstition mountain is captured on a web cam. Hundreds of people for miles around eye witness it. In this moment thousands of lives will be forever changed.
“911 What is your location?”
“A plane just crashed into the Superstition Mountains…just at the top.”
“Ah OK a PLANE did?”
“Yeah a PLANE did! It flew, it was flying over us, we were watching it fly over us and it just burst into flames. It, it’s just…..The mountain is on FIRE! “
“Up at the top though.”
“Ok the Superstition Mountain right?”
“THE MOUNTAIN IS ON FIRE?”
“The mountain is on fire, up at the top, yes it is.”
“They didn’t see the peak they were flying blind. [background oh my God] Oh my God!” “Okay. “
“Do you know, ok so you were watching?”
“Yeah, we live up here and it’s, it’s, do you know where flat iron is? And ah Shiprock? It’s right up by Shiprock it looks like they didn’t know Shiprock was there.”
“Hold on…just a second for me. Okay we have multiple calls on it sir, we are sending help there.”
I had been sick in bed all that day. At 6:34 p.m. I was asleep. At about 7 p.m. I awoke and realized that my kids had not yet called me as they usually did when they arrived. I sent a text off to their father, Shawn…”hey did you guys make it in alright?” I never got a response. Thinking they would call me later I drifted back off to sleep. At 8 p.m. my home phone rang. The kids always called on my cell, so I did not answer it. Whoever wanted to talk with me was persistent and called two more times. I was annoyed because I was trying to rest….what could possibly be that important? I got out of bed and answered the phone. It was my nanny, Jaleesa. Earlier she had taken the children to the airport for me because I was sick.
She was crying. “Karen there has been a plane crash!” I was thinking to myself, okay, so planes crash every day, why are you telling me this? Then she stated “Karen, it was registered to Ponderosa Aviation.” I remained calm, “how do you know that?” “Because it was on the news, the FAA traced it to Ponderosa.” I stumbled out of bed, dizzy and stunned. This can’t be true, I thought, it just can’t be, this has to be some kind of mistake!
I made a call to the owner and operator of Ponderosa Aviation. “Ah, Mike, I understand that one of your planes went down? (Silence….) Mike, my kids were on that plane!” “You mean the Sheriff hasn’t been there yet?” he asked? “NO!” I screamed. “Well he will.” I gasped… “Karen, my brother was on that plane too.” I was stunned. I hung up. The ceiling seemed to swirl around my head and the news hit me like ten thousand bullets…. My only thought was, MY KIDS ARE DEAD!
At about 9 p.m., people were showing up on my doorstep. Soon there was a group of people surrounding me. It was surreal. I looked out the front window into the darkness, and saw six Pinal County Sheriffs, in full official regalia, walking up my courtyard. I let them in.
We all sat down in the living room. Sheriff Paul Babeu, in the gentlest, most heartfelt voice I have ever heard, told me what he knew about the crash. “We are searching for survivors Karen.” They asked me lots of questions. Was this a planned trip? Did they always fly after dark? What were they doing? Was Shawn usually the pilot?
I explained the custody arrangement that Shawn and I had. He would get the children every other weekend. Usually he would fly to Mesa from Safford to pick up the kids, and then would drive them home on Sunday. This year he also had them for the long Thanksgiving holiday.
It was no secret among our friends and family that we had recently had a very bitter divorce and custody battle. Initial investigative attention went to the horrible possibility that perhaps Shawn had flown the aircraft into the mountain; intentionally killing all aboard. This was quickly disproven by a security tape at the airport, which showed Shawn and the children while they boarded and sat in the back of the airplane. Our 9 year-old daughter, Morgan was upset that night and did not want to get on the plane. Shawn sat in the back with the kids in an effort to calm her down.
“What was Morgan wearing?” The Sheriff asked me. I described her clothing to the officer. About a half hour later it is confirmed that one child has been found dead; possibly a female about nine years old. I knew it was Morgan.
Hours later after a team of NTSB, FAA, and rescue workers arrived at the scene, it is confirmed that the bodies of all six have been accounted for, and there are NO SURVIVORS.
I stared in disbelief at the Thanksgiving cards the boys had made me just three days earlier in church. I looked at their backpacks and shoes scattered around the floor by my front door. The jacket that I told Logan to take because it was cold outside was still sitting on the shoe rack. They were just here, I just said “goodbye” to them a couple of hours ago! Logan almost got out that night without saying goodbye. I told him to get back in the house and give me a hug and kiss, with no knowledge of what was yet to come.
That Wednesday morning started out like any other day. I got my kids ready for school. My daughter Morgan 9, and son Logan 8, had half days and my son Luke 6, did not have school that day, so he stayed home with me. I told him that he was going on an airplane ride and spending thanksgiving in Safford with his dad. Unclothed, he jumped up and down cheerfully announcing “yeah I LOVE THANKSGIVING!” Later that day my Nanny took all the kids to the falcon field airport in Mesa as I was feeling ill that day. At approximately 6 PM the private aircraft arrived from Safford to Falcon Field. Security video clearly shows the children in the last minutes of their life waiting for their father with Jaleesa, their nanny. The aircraft was refueled. While boarding the plane, Morgan created a scene and did not want to get on onboard….Shawn in a effort to calm her sat in the back of the aircraft with the children. The other pilot climbed into the pilot seat. The aircraft was cleared for t/o and two minutes later cleared for a right turn out. The right turn out was the last communications heard from their aircraft. They were airborne for 6 minutes….It was a pitch black night with no moon or visible horizon.
There was little left in the wreckage, because the aircraft, full of fuel burst into flames after slamming straight into the mountain.
Russel Hardy 31- Pilot
Joseph Hardwick 22 -Mechanic (seated in the co-pilot seat)
Shawn Perry 39 – Pilot – and his three children (all seated in the back)
Morgan Perry 9
Logan Perry 8,
Luke Perry 6.
May you all rest in peace.
They were only airborne for six minutes. And then in one dramatic moment they were all gone.
The months that followed are a blur. They were so traumatic I can barely remember them. I had friends watching me around the clock. I was dazed, confused, and could barely move because it felt as though cement had been poured all over my body. I began seeing a psychiatrist who put me on medications for depression and anxiety. I sought out additional help in the form of grief counseling. I prayed continuously.
I read the Autopsy reports, cause of death, “BLUNT FORCE TRAUMA.” Now all I have left of my children are my memories and three small black boxes of ashes perched on a shelf in my bedroom closet. Morgan, Logan, and Luke I think about you every single day and will never forget the life we once had. Three months after their death, I lost our house and the comfort I felt from cherished memories there.
I so vividly continue to go back to the memory of my first solo flight as a pilot. This is one of the most significant accomplishments for those who have a lifelong love affair with airplanes! I was nineteen years old at General Lyman Field in Hilo, on the Big Island of Hawaii. I was so excited about flying airplanes and I was on top of the world with excitement for the future of possibilities. The only experience more gratifying was the day that I gave birth to each one of you and became your Mother. Little did I know…… the two worlds that I loved, my two life dreams, would collide, so dramatically into a million pieces…… in one single instant.
God , I know that it takes a lot to get my attention…..you did! The irony of timing of the Thanksgiving holiday, the fact that it happened practically in my back yard, and the fact that it was in an airplane! I also understand that three young men who were stranded and lost in the Superstition Mountains that night were saved because of the helicopters looking for survivors of the accident.
Eight times I have hiked the treacherous mountain to pay tribute to Shawn and my three children.
My sweet little Morgan, every single night when I tucked you into bed I would ask if you were my little angel. You always told me “yes”……… now I know that you really are! No more seizures in heaven sweet child. I can still hear you singing the Usher song “when I see your face, there’s not a thing that I would change, because girl you’re amazing, just the way you are. And when you smile, the whole world stops to stare for a while, because you’re amazing just the way you are.” Morgan you endured so much pain and displayed so much strength in your short time on this earth. I love you forever and will never forget the lessons you taught me. Bye, bye butterfly.
About a week before the accident we were in the car stopped at the light by Bashas grocery store. Logan reached over to hold my hand. “Mother, if I die next week does that mean you will still be my mother?” Stunned at his question I told him “of course Logan, I will always be your mother.” His comment left an indelible mark in my mind.
My dear son, Logi Bear, what an amazing eight years we had together! I would not have missed it for anything. You little man, were the love of my life and I will never forget you. I’ll bet the movies, popcorn, and “snack” in heaven are pretty cool.
Luke every morning you would look outside the window and tell me “today is a beautiful day Mommy!” It would instantly turn the craziest morning into a thing of beauty.
My sweet little man, I blow a hundred kisses to you each day in the clouds that you loved so much. I will always remember your big brown eyes, your sweet smile, and beautiful, pure innocent heart of gold.
Rest in peace my sweet angels.
And with that I would like to point out that my faith and trust in God is stronger than ever.
“It’s natural to get mired in the sadness, the fear, the horror, the upset, and everything else that you can imagine.” ~Ashley Davis-Bush~
But you know what? I am thankful. How do I feel thankful in all that has happened? I am thankful to God for my life, I am thankful to have had these amazing little people in my life who have taught me so much. I am thankful for the outpouring of love, compassion, and human kindness that touched me very deeply. Beyond that, what can we all be thankful to God for? We can be thankful for fresh air, sunshine, for the people in our lives, for the things that we love, for being able to see, to hear, to feel. All things that God has made possible for us.
God’s Inspirational Promise book Max Lucado: page 67:
There is a window in your in heart through which you can see God. Once upon a time that window was clear. Your view of God was crisp. You could see God as vividly as you could see a gentle valley or a hillside.
Then, suddenly, the window cracked. A pebble broke the window. A pebble of pain.
And suddenly God was not so easy to see. The view that had been so crisp had changed.
You were puzzled. God wouldn’t allow something like this to happen, would he?
When you can’t see him, trust him…..Jesus is closer than you’ve ever dreamed.
Father, we believe that when we see you, any suffering that we endured on the face of this earth will be worth it. Help us to understand. And when we cannot understand, help us to trust.
Jesus Calling written by Sarah Young:
Thankfulness takes the sting out of adversity. This is why I have instructed you to give thanks for everything. There is an element of mystery in this transaction: You give me thanks (regardless of your feeling), and I give you Joy (regardless of your circumstances.) This is a spiritual act of obedience. To people who don’t know Me intimately, it can seem irrational and even impossible to thank Me for heartrending hardships. Nonetheless, those who obey Me in this way are invariably blessed, even though difficulties may remain.
Thankfulness opens your heart to My Presence and your mind to My thoughts. You may still be in the same place, with the same set of circumstances, but it is as if a light has been switched on, enabling you to see from My perspective. It is this Light of My Presence that removes the sting from adversity.
“There are lessons embedded in every situation; from patience, to courage, to perseverance. “ ~Ashley Davis-Bush~
In this very personal journey called life, I wish you all of God’s peace, love, and grace.