Local Author Shares Lessons in Survival

Mike Gossie, Tribune

Thirty years ago today, Air Force Captain George Burk and 13 others faced death like those who waged war a half world away in Vietnam."The weather was terrible with low clouds and fog when we took off," the Scottsdale resident remember about the day that changed his life forever. "Less than three minutes into the flight, a window across from me cracked. As soon as it did, the plane went into rapid decompression. It started rolling and pitching downward." As the faces of his wife and children flashed before his eyes, Burk remembers how he bent over in his seat with his hands clasped under his knees and prayed that his insurance policy was current. The memory is burned into his mind like the flames that engulfed the plane as it cascaded to the northern California ground as windows blew out, the canopy of the cockpit peeled back like a sardine can and the engines sputtered and the plane crashed. Burk survived, but the other 13 did not. But Burk has used the experience to help others as a motivational speaker and as the author of an inspirational account of his struggle, "The Bridge Never Crossed: A Survivor's Search for Meaning." A rancher looking for stray cattle found Burk, who instinctively rose from the wreckage after feeling like someone "threw a bucket of scalding water on me." Burk's road to recovery and discovery was long, however, and started with an 18-month stay in a burn unit packed with Vietnam casualties. "My family was called 10 times and told I wouldn't make it through the night," says Burk, who credits his experience as a basketball and baseball star with helping him survive. "When I was on the mound, nobody but me would know if I lost focus and blew a pitch. But I knew. I never wanted to see myself as a quitter, so I never gave up. I didn't care what the doctors said. My instincts took over. I just wanted to live." Once he recovered from his physical injuries, Burk was left to mend the mental wounds left from losing a plane full of friends. "It felt a little bit like there was a hole in my life," Burk recalls. "Even 10 years after the crash, I was dealing with, 'What am I supposed to do now?' I was waiting for some sign saying, 'Go here. Do this.'" What Burk found along the way was his ability to use his first-hand experience to help other burn victims and to train firefighters by offering a different perspective - the view of a survivor. "I really feel like a blessed man," says Burk, currently working on his next book, "Crash, Burn and Learn." "If I would have passed that bridge with those other 13 guys, I would have left knowing I had impacted a few lives. But when I pass that bridge the second time, I hope I will have made a difference in a lot more lives. That's why I survived. To make a difference."