Gasoline seeped from the right wing. Worried that a spark might touch off an explosion or fire, Sean hurried to Jason. But when he bent to lift him, Sean’s back felt as though it had crumbled. Adrenaline had masked the pain until now, but his back was broken in several places.
He pointed to a fallen tree 15 feet away, then crept alongside Jason as his friend crawled on one arm to the trunk and curled up behind it for protection.
Returning to the plane, Sean climbed in, afraid of what he might find. The cabin was completely dark, and he couldn’t reach the pilot’s seat. His calls for Brian Early were met with silence.
Outside, Jason was shouting. Sean feared that his friend was going into shock, so he returned to the tree. “Calm down, calm down,” he said to Jason.
“We’ve got to call 911,” Jason said. He dialed the number with his good hand and gave the phone to Sean. The reception was poor, but Sean managed to hear the operator ask where they’d gone down. Jason had glimpsed their coordinates moments before the crash, and Sean relayed them to the operator. Then the phone cut off.
The plane had come to rest in a wooded valley about two miles from the airport. The ground was still damp from a week of cold rain. As Sean walked to search for better reception, he felt as though his back were snapping. The pain was excruciating when he bent over, and it relented only when he stood as erect as he could.
At the top of a hill, he got service and called 911 again. He told the operator about Jason’s injuries, but the phone’s battery started to die. In the distance, he could hear Jason screaming, “Don’t leave me!”
Jason was in bad shape. His hand was bleeding profusely. Sean lay down next to him behind the tree, his back throbbing. The two shivered uncontrollably. Sean got Jason’s bag of dirty laundry from the plane, ripped it open, and piled clothes on top of his friend. He wrapped a T-shirt around Jason’s wounded hand, then called 911 again. But the phone died.
In the dark stillness, Jason told Sean he was sure his father was dead. They talked about how they had to hang together. This was the worst moment of their lives.
“I never thought I’d say this,” Sean said, “but I can’t wait to be in a hospital bed.”
Hours passed, and they struggled to keep awake. Sometime after 4 am, they heard sirens. They yelled for help, but the sirens faded as rescue crews moved past them. Thirty minutes later, the sound returned, this time from the opposite direction. The ping-pong of sirens continued for what seemed like hours as emergency-response teams tried to find the accident site. Finally, the young men heard footsteps. With what little voice they still had, they screamed again. Flashlight beams hit the trees around them, and they saw firefighters running their way.
More than 200 rescuers took part in the search. The plane had crashed in rough terrain littered with marshes.
At the crash site, they found Brian Early dead. The firefighters draped their jackets over the young men. Sean and Jason listened as a rescuer radioed their discovery: “Two alive,” he said. “One . . . .” He paused, then moved out of earshot of Sean and Jason. The firefighters took Sean first, hoisting him onto a stretcher and carrying him on their shoulders. “You’re the man, Jason!” Sean called out. “You’re the man!”
It took 45 minutes to reach the ambulance. The firefighters covered Sean in a blanket, and as the ambulance drove off, he wondered if he had just awakened from a bad dream.
At St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital in Newburgh, New York—on the Hudson River some ten miles east of the crash site—doctors and nurses converged on Sean’s stretcher. Minutes later, he heard Jason arrive at the hospital, cursing as nurses cut off his clothes. “Somebody call my mom,” Jason said.
Call it a mother’s intuition: Joy Sutherland, Sean’s mom, had awakened in her house off Alexandria’s Janneys Lane at 1:20 am.
The daughter of a World War II Navy veteran who started an exporting business in the area, Joy had grown up in Alexandria. In 1997, after her divorce from Sean’s father—who had worked at MCI before starting a remodeling company—she got a real-estate license.
With a feeling that something was wrong, she called her ex-husband. He was waiting for Sean at Stewart airport outside Newburgh. He hadn’t heard anything. Joy checked the Lynchburg basketball roster online, found that Jason was from the Philadelphia suburb of Radnor, and called information for the Early family’s phone number.
The call woke Kathy Early. She checked the flight locator Brian kept in their home; everything looked normal. When Joy told her the plane hadn’t landed, she wondered if Brian had turned back to Philly for some reason.
Ten minutes later, Kathy called Joy. “Are you alone?” she said. “There’s been a 911 call.”
Both families arrived at the hospital in Newburgh before noon on November 21. Doctors put off surgery on Sean’s back, hoping the bones would fuse naturally, but his pain was unbearable. He was transferred to the Westchester Medical Center’s trauma unit, an hour south. Five days later, doctors operated, fusing the bones and inserting a rod in his back.
Jason was stabilized at St. Luke’s and sent to Westchester shortly after Sean. Sedated, he was able to wiggle his toes and squeeze his sister Molly’s hand. Two days later, he whispered, “I love you,” to his girlfriend, Ashley.
Four days after the crash, doctors operated on his legs, placing metal rods along both femurs to help the bones mend. Jason was preparing for another round of surgeries on his legs and wrist when he developed severe problems with his respiratory system. His temperature skyrocketed. Doctors induced a coma and told the Early family that Jason had a 50/50 shot at surviving.
The Earlys—Jason’s aunts and uncles, mother, sister, and girlfriend—kept vigil at the hospital. Devout Catholics, they called on loved ones to pray and kept friends updated through the hospital’s Web site. When Jason was placed into a capsulelike device intended to clear the fluid out of his lungs, they found encouragement in a coincidence they wrote about in an online post: “Ok guys, get this. . . . There are hundreds of these [devices] at Westchester, but guess which one Jason is in . . . the one with #15 in RED and WHITE lettering!!!! For those who don’t already know, Jason plays basketball for Lynchburg College and their colors are RED and WHITE, and his number is 15!!!!”
A day later, Early was still in critical condition, but the breathing machine had stabilized him. He came down with pneumonia, as doctors expected, but his temperature dropped. “Baby steps,” the family posted. “This is still a marathon, not a sprint, and Jas needs all the love and prayers he can get right now.”
On December 8—13 days after he had gone into a coma—Jason opened his eyes and moved his fingers. The next day, doctors moved him to a regular bed.
He continued to improve the week before Christmas. He started eating again—first ice, then applesauce, and on his last day at Westchester, chicken nuggets. Slowly his speech returned. First, it was only lip-synching to Sugarland and Marc Cohn songs that his cousin played in the hospital, but later he made surprise phone calls to family.
Five players from the New York Knicks heard about Jason’s story and visited him, as did the firefighters who had rescued him. He watched a DVD of Lynchburg’s first game after the accident. Before the game, a Lynchburg fan prayed: “Tonight, O God, this game is for Sean and Brian and Jason.”
Jason’s mother was overcome by his improvement. She wrote: “He is fighting so hard to come back to us. His spirit is incredibly strong and we are so proud of him.” Then, she wrote directly to Sean: “You are part of our heart, Sean, and we all love you.”
Sean, at home in Alexandria, thought about his friend and despaired. He wanted to see Jason, to talk through everything and fill in the blanks in his memory. But he didn’t want to see him like this.