Each of us, in time, will no doubt experience heartbreaking moments within our lives. Perhaps it’s losing a loved one, or ending a marriage through a divorce or maybe losing out on a promotion in our chosen career. Disappointments, regardless if they are big or small, affects us all.
However, for a beautiful young mother, what followed on August 16th, 2008, would shatter anyone’s faith, even Stephanie Nielson’s belief in God.
Stephanie and her husband Christian had decided to take a daylong outing and enjoy the scenic beauty of New Mexico, flying over the magnificent landscape in their small Cessna 177 Cardinal airplane, while Christian’s parents babysat the kids at home. Christian, a newly licensed pilot, along with Doug Kinneard, his flight instructor, wanted to surprise Stephanie with how accomplished Christian had become handling the nimble aircraft.
It was a picture perfect sunny day without a cloud in the vibrant blue sky. Suddenly, the engine within the aircraft began to sputter. Seconds later it stalled, sending the small aircraft spiraling out-of-control, hitting power-lines and clipping the tops of trees as it plummeted to the ground. The plane crashed nose first and burst into flames.
Dazed and confused, Christian escaped the burning plane first, thinking Stephanie was behind him. However, Stephanie was trapped inside unable to free herself. The flames engulfed her body, scorching her skin as she frantically attempted to escape the inferno.
“I was drowning in flames,” she recalls. “I reached for the seatbelt, but I couldn’t find it. I couldn’t get out.”
Stephanie stopped struggling, accepting her fate, that within moments she would die. Then she felt a presence besides her, guiding her hand into unbuckling the seatbelt and then guiding her out the burning aircraft. She heard the voice of her deceased grandmother instructing her to roll.
“There were people from the other side of the veil helping me,” Stephanie says. “I felt my grandmother and others there.”
The 27-year old mother of 4 believes that there were other miracles that day. “The first miracle is that when we crashed we didn’t hurt anyone on the ground,” she says. And where the plane crashed was also no coincidence; it was across from the home of a Latter Day Saint bishop.
“I remember men running over to me,” she recalls. “The first thing they asked is if there were other people in the plane. Then they asked if I was LDS and if I wanted a priesthood blessing. They gave me a blessing that I would be comforted and that things would turn out the way they were supposed to and that I would have limited pain. It was awful, but it was a very spiritual moment.”
Christian suffered burns over 40% of his body and a broken back, while Doug Kinneard suffered burns over 90% of his body and later died from his injuries. Stephanie, meanwhile, suffered burns over 80% of her body, and was left fighting for her life.
Her amazing struggle to survive, against all odds, and the realization that her physical beauty had forever changed within the confines of a burning cockpit, only to emerge as a woman filled with a purpose to share God’s word and fulfill her role as a wife and mother.
“I was with my grandmother, and I was given a choice,” she says. “I was told, ‘This is what’s going to happen if you stay here. You can do lots of missionary work with your grandmother and others who have passed before you, and there won’t be any suffering. Or you can go back to earth where you will have your husband and children, but will probably be in constant pain.’”
She continues, “It was a hard choice. I don’t remember making it right away. But ultimately, I wanted to come back and finish my mortal life with my husband and children. I knew what an honor it is to have a body on this earth and I wanted to finish what I started.”
“This is my mission,” she explains. “I promised I would share the gospel with everybody who needed it. Through this accident, this is what I am supposed to do.”