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Published: Sunday, 7/31/2005

Heroic measures: Re-enactment of local plane crash and rescue is filmed for TV

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER
Jendra Jarnagin films an airplane flown by Shane Williams of Phoenix, as he tries to show how Christopher Malhoit's plane swept low to the ground before crashing on May 3, 1996, at the Fulton County Airport in Wauseon. Jendra Jarnagin films an airplane flown by Shane Williams of Phoenix, as he tries to show how Christopher Malhoit's plane swept low to the ground before crashing on May 3, 1996, at the Fulton County Airport in Wauseon.
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Shannon Shane Williams, the airport manager at Fulton County Airport, was flying with a student pilot when he saw a small plane in trouble.

It tried to land, lurched upward, nosedived, and crashed upside down.

He made an immediate landing, handed over the controls to the student, and leaped out. He stumbled and fell, the plane s tail just missing his head.

The 28-year-old father of two ran across the field to a smoking pile of fabric, balsa wood, and tubing. I pretty much figured they were dead, said Mr. Williams.

Minutes later, the lining of his lungs were scorched, and he wouldn t breathe normally for a year.

The crash

A few hours earlier on May 3, 1996, Lauren Malhoit, 14, had left Notre Dame Academy for her father and grandfather s store, Malhoit Stationers on West Sylvania Avenue, where she worked part-time. Her dad, Christopher Malhoit, suggested she join him in transporting a friend s plane from Toledo Suburban Airport in Lambertville to the Fulton County Airport in Wauseon. In 20 years, he had logged nearly 1,000 hours of flying time. The drive back to Toledo would be longer than the 15-minutes in the air.

But as Mr. Malhoit tried to land the single-engine, 1973 Bellanca Turbo Viking, with four snugly-placed seats, it veered out of control.

I had the feeling in my stomach of being in a roller coaster, said Lauren, who lost consciousness briefly.

The National Transportation Safety Board later determined the probable cause of the accident was the pilot s failure to maintain control of the aircraft which resulted in an inadvertent stall while on short final approach to land.

When I woke up, I was screaming. My dad was yelling, said Lauren. You wake up and dread washes over you, like everything is wrong.

She doesn t recall pain, but she ll never forget the smell of burning flesh. It sticks in your nose for a long time.

The force of the crash slammed her father s head so hard, his eyeball split the lid. I remember being in a total fog, he said.

Mr. Williams found Lauren, who was 5-foot, 8-inches tall and weighed 155 pounds, under a wing. Her legs were pinned by the steaming engine, so hot that it charred her legs to the bone and branded its serial number onto her skin. He lifted the back of the plane and freed her, dragging her about 30 feet away, then racing back for her father.

Flames were licking along the craft by the time he broke out the side window, unbuckled Mr. Malhoit, and pulled the large man through the window. He had dragged him a short distance when the flames found an oxygen bottle or perhaps the tiny craft s 80 gallons of fuel, and the deafening explosion knocked him flat.

The film

Two weeks ago, Mr. Williams, 37, again jumped out of a moving plane, rolled on the ground, and ran to a busted-up, smoking plane at the Fulton County Airport north of Wauseon. With vivid memories, he recreated his actions, dragging two actors from the plane over and over, and guiding a film crew and pyrotechnicians through the events of that day nine years before.

Hallmark Entertainment found out about him by searching the archives of the prestigious Carnegie Hero Awards, which he won in 1996. He doesn t know who nominated him. He was also presented with a silver medal from the U. S. Air Force, because he was a member of the Civil Air Patrol at the time.

I thought my kids should see what happened, how I won the Carnegie medal, said Mr. Williams, who often joked through the filming.

In 1996, he was the airport s fixed-base operator, living in an apartment above the hangar with his family. He has recently moved to Phoenix where he flies for Cutter Aviation, a charter company, and for a private businessman. His four children, ages 2 to 11, have heard the crash-and-rescue story, but standing on the sidelines along a runway with several relatives, they were transfixed by the action.

The resulting 15- to 20-minute film will be a segment in a five-hour series of programs about heroes that s expected to air on the Hallmark Channel in the next six months, said Jennie Gusewelle, director of development for Hallmark Entertainment, which is producing the series.

Leading the six-person crew from New York City is filmmaker Lisa Jackson, who never stops moving. She wears jeans and a T-shirt, a neck bandana, ball cap, and shoes sturdy enough to negotiate the stubble between the narrow runway and a soybean field.

Jackson, a lean woman who has made documentaries for three decades and won an Emmy Award in 1998, has contracted to film eight segments for the hero series. She knows that re-creating painful events stirs the pot for the victims and sometimes even more so for their loved ones. Indeed, the Malhoits decided not to attend the filmmaking.

These just touch my heart, said Ms. Jackson. You re asking people to go back to a time in their lives that is probably the darkest time.

The recovery

Monica Malhoit was home from her job as a stockbroker and mowing her lawn in Maumee when she got the call that her 14-year-old daughter and former husband had been life-flighted to St. Vincent Mercy Medical Center. She and her elder daughter, Deirdre, then 20, sped to the hospital.

It was a long, long, slow recovery, physically, emotionally, and psychologically, said Ms. Malhoit. And it was extremely challenging for a single mother.

A few days later, Mr. Malhoit was released from the hospital; his broken arm fixed with two permanent rods, his eyelid stitched, and his burned legs slathered with ointment.

But Lauren s injuries were severe. She suffered several broken bones, cuts, and, worst of all, her ankle was burned to the bone. The rest was third-degree burns, said Lauren. She faced amputation initially and a second time when her leg became infected.

The greatest pain was the cutting off of healthy skin from her thigh about an eight-inch square that was grafted on to her lower right calf. Most of the grafts were successful.

Many surgeries

As a child attending St. Joan of Arc School, Lauren was an outgoing tomboy, her mother said. She loved camping, fishing, biking, and sports, and she was sensitive to people s feelings.

During nearly two months in the hospital, Lauren became deeply attached to the nurses, who seemed to understand her in a way she felt most people couldn t. She had lots of visitors but longed for the peace of being alone with her own routines. She hated being discharged from the hospital. At home, she received nursing care from some of her hospital nurses. She also had regular doses of morphine.

In August, 1996, she returned to school on crutches; in a few months, she was using a cane. But the surgeries continued seven in all: her leg was re-broken, a rod was removed, her jaw was wired shut, and scars were repaired.

Unable to play volleyball at school, she became the team manager. I couldn t run until I was about 17 or 18 years old, said Lauren.

She learned not to sweat the small stuff of high school. I had bigger fish to fry.

Nevertheless, it was a difficult time for the family. Sleep eluded Lauren at night. And no sooner had she recuperated from one surgery than the next was being planned. She was a strong soldier, but she would let her guard down with me, said Ms. Malhoit, adding that Lauren blossomed when she attended Hillsdale College. She d call home and end conversations with, I love you, mom, said Ms. Malhoit, 50. She got back into life.

After graduating in 2003 from Hillsdale, where she specialized in computers and math, Lauren moved to the Detroit area and subcontracted as a computer tech. She works at Malhoit Stationers and plans to move back to Toledo next month. She plays guitar and banjo, is a movie buff, and likes fixing computers. And she has sworn off flying.

I ve dealt with it [the accident] but it s always been a part of my life, good and bad.

Despite extensive scarring, if she wants to be comfortable, she doesn t hesitate to wear shorts and flip-flops. I get a lot of stares. I don t care if people look, but I don t like it if people pretend they aren t looking. I want people to feel like they can ask me about it.

Mr. Malhoit, 51, still enjoys flying with friends, but not as pilot-in-command. He marvels at the series of events that resulted in his and Lauren s rescue that Mr. Williams was nearby when the Malhoit plane went down; that Mr. Williams stumbled and fell after jumping from his plane, thereby avoiding a hit from the plane s tail, and that Mr. Williams had the presence of mind to lift the plane, freeing Lauren. It was miraculous, said Mr. Malhoit.

The finale

After the crash, the Malhoits wrote letters of thanks to Mr. Williams, and a few months later Mr. Malhoit attended an awards ceremony for him. Mr. Williams wanted to visit Lauren in the hospital but he worked sunrise to sunset, seven days a week.

Last month, the filmmakers staged a reunion of the Malhoits and Mr. Williams at the airport. With cameras aimed at her face, Lauren felt self-conscious.

The Malhoits learned that smoke inhalation caused their rescuer a year s worth of intense coughing fits that he treated with steroids. He took them to the spot where the crash occurred and explained what he saw that day.

It was exciting to meet him, said Lauren. He filled us in on his life.

It wasn t like closure; not like it needed that; it s been nine years, she said. But it was full circle, completion of the story. I like knowing every aspect of it.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.



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