Beating Back Death

Richard Freedman, Vallejo Times Herald, Vallejo California

Funeral arrangements were made. Last rites were prepared. Family said they were sending him home in a casket. George Burk was as good as dead.

His battered body, incinerated and broken like crushed pretzels, remained basically lifeless as a once sturdy 6 - foot five, 220 - pound Air Force air traffic controller and former high school and college athlete was minutes----maybe seconds---from becoming the 14th and final victim of a fiery plane wreck near an isolated Sonoma ranch.

Whether it was a miraculous act of God or incredible luck, Burk survived. And now, as May 4 marks the 30th anniversary of that waltz through hell, Burk shares his story in motivational speeches and a new book, "The Bridge Never Crossed: A Survivor's Search for Meaning."

"Never quit. Never give up. Inspiration, motivation and spirituality. And there is something else," is the purpose of the paperback, Burk said by phone from his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.

It should probably come as zero surprise that Burk, still wracked physically by the plane crash, turned to a career as a motivational speaker.

Not that it was always easy talking about 18 months in the hospital burn unit. Or the anguish of facing death at least, by a doctor's estimate, 10 times. Not that it was always easy talking about two near-death experiences when, while in a coma, he saw several of his perished comrades alive.

"Depending on the audience, I still find myself getting a little emotional," Burk said. "Three or four times a year, I still have flashbacks." There's always a trigger, like the doomed Alaska Airlines Flight 261 off the coast of Los Angeles two months ago. Or maybe an ambulance siren whizzing by.

"I would have this dream where I can still hear the trees brushing by the wings just before impact," Burk said. "Then I wake up. it's hard to describe. It's totally surreal."

Burk's back still aches. So do his legs and his neck. Only the middle of his chest doesn't throb at times, he said. I will be in some sort of discomfort for the rest of my life," Burk said. Everywhere he goes, he talks about the wreck. It's what paved his path of faith.

Burk won the Presidential Award as Outstanding Employee with Disabilities. He earned the Department of Defense Outstanding Employee with Disabilities honor. Plus the Bronze Star Medal, Air Force Commendation Medal, Air Force Meritorious Civilian Service Award and other accolades.

Burk suffered a skull fracture in the wreck. And neck, shoulder and vertebrate injuries. And the burns were horrendous. With two bones gone, his left hand is useless.

"I have been blessed to accomplish in life what I've accomplished and it was a result of what happened," Burk said. "And I'll continue to work on turning the negative into a positive.

"I choose to see myself as a survivor and part of the solution, not as a victim and part of the problem," Burk said. "Do I always succeed?" No. Do I stop trying? Absolutely not! The worst thing that's going to happen to me has already happened. Nothing has come close."

Burk refuses to call his survival and success "lucky." "I'm not lucky. I'm blessed," he said.

Five years after the crash, Burk went back to school and took an accelerated master's program.

"I used to read a book on public speaking that said man's greatest fear was speaking and that given a choice between that and walking through a wall of fire, man would choose the wall of fire."

Burk managed to laugh.

"I've done both," he said. "This (speaking) is a piece of cake. Trust me. I would rather get up in front of people top speak. It's all relative. Speaking gives purpose to my life."

Burk experienced "survivor guilt" when he realized he was the lone man who managed to crawl away from the burning plane. He finally accepted it months later. "Why me?" Why not? I really don't know," he said.

The pain, he said was indescribable. The best analogy, said Burk, is imagine the cold one could feel "and multiply that ten-fold. In the six to seven years after I was injured, I would stand up and blood rushed to my legs. It felt like mosquitoes biting me all over. And you can't scratch or you would break the skin and get infected. When I was burned, I was insane with thirst. I had never been so cold or so thirsty. You just can't experience anything like that."

It took about six years before he began to emotionally heal from the crash.

"We heal the body," Burk said. "But we don't have time for the mind. We didn't understand post-traumatic stress or survivor guilt." Burk, always in prime shape, never thought he would get sick, much less stare death in the eye.

"I thought I was never going to get ill or have things bother me," Burk said. "Suddenly, I'm fighting for every breath and literally learning how to feed myself and wanting to have people touch me and they couldn't. That's what's important. I discovered life is more than material wealth, status or pleasure. It's who we are as individuals. It's our faith."

At the time of the wreck, Burk had $22 in their checking, three young children and a $10,000 life insurance policy that was the last thing on his mind as ther plane spiraled to earth at about 120 miles an hour. "It was," Burk said, "my last conscious thought."

Burk baffled nurses and doctors who couldn't believed he survived when everyone else died. "The nurses would say they didn't know why I was still here," Burk said. "My wife and my mother would say, 'Please let us know when will pass so we can be there.' Obviously, I never did."

Four years after the wreck, Burk met John Davieau, the man who found him near death.

"He didn't know who I was," Burk said. "When I told him, he hugged me and started crying. He said, 'God sent me to find you.' Before that, he'd never been through that ravine."

"There is a heaven," Burk said.