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Rodrigo Abd, Associated Press
Crews search wreckage in Cabanas, Guatemala. Eleven people were killed, including three Utahns.

Both legs were broken, his feet dislocated, and in the seats next to him the bodies of his friends.

As Bountiful resident Dan Liljenquist came to after briefly being knocked out, he realized the front of the plane that he and 13 others were in — which had just crashed in Guatemala during an emergency landing — was on fire.

"When I woke up, I just kept saying, 'I'm alive. I'm alive.' And when the plane started on fire, I kept chanting, 'Not today,"' said Liljenquist.

Liljenquist, a state Senate candidate, was one of three survivors from the plane that crashed earlier this week while on a humanitarian effort in Guatemala. Eleven others, including three Utahns, were killed.

Speaking to the Deseret News on the phone from his hospital bed in Guatemala City, Liljenquist recounted the tragic accident and his own miraculous story of survival.

Contrary to other reports given primarily by witnesses and those receiving information second-hand, Liljenquist said it was important for the families of the victims to know that 10 of the passengers were killed instantly and did not suffer. Those people died on impact and were not killed by the subsequent fire and explosion, he said.

Liljenquist was sitting in the rear of the plane next to his good friend John Carter and Javier Rabanales, the Guatemalan director of CHOICE Humanitarian. Carter and Liljenquist were part of the group Focus Services.

The group was flying to Alta Verapez to help build a classroom in the village of Sepamac. About 45 minutes into the flight, Liljenquist noticed the first sign of trouble.

"I noticed the pilot started to flip switches and move very quickly. Then we could smell burning oil. And then, after that, the engine just stopped," he said. "It was kind of surreal. We just stopped. We went from the noise of the plane to just the noise of the wind on the wings. It was surreal."

The plane was still 10,000 to 15,000 feet off the ground at that point, Liljenquist said.

"The pilot panicked a little bit, told us to put our seat belts on and we'd need to make a crash landing," he said.

The area they were over at that time, however, was hilly with lots of trees.

As the plane descended, everyone on board remained quiet and calm. At one point, one of the passengers commented calmly, "If it's our time to go, it's our time to go," Liljenquist said.

It wasn't until they were almost ready to hit the ground that one of the other passengers, one of the survivors, panicked and started yelling, "Oh God, oh God" and began praying out loud.

The last thing Liljenquist remembers was being about 20 feet from the ground, when the wing of the plane clipped a tree, and then he was briefly knocked out as the emergency landing ended in a violent crash.

Liljenquist had sunk as low in his seat as he could, with his legs stretched in front of him and only his shoulders touching the seat. He believes getting that low ultimately saved his life.

"The next thing I remember is waking up, hanging on my side, unbuckling my seat belt," he said.

The two friends he was sitting next to, Carter and Rabanales, were dead. Liljenquist said he came within millimeters of suffering the same fate.

From the front of the plane, he could hear two people calling for help, Liz Johnson and April Jensen.

"The fire started and April screamed. I tried to push off but both my feet were dislocated. I just used my elbows to crawl to the edge of the plane and yell for help," he said. "The plane was so horribly mangled. It was just crumbled. (My wife and I) definitely feel like it's a miracle. It could have been anybody, the way we hit, the way the plane rolled. There just happened to be a hole for me to crawl out. I was really fortunate."

The plane's body had cracked open where Liljenquist was sitting. Two farmers happened to be nearby and heard his cries for help. They went over and pulled him out of the plane, saving his life.

"They pulled me 30 feet. Then the plane exploded and the fire carried across the field. I yelled for help again and they carried me around the corner," Liljenquist said.

Three others were able to get out of the plane, some of them badly burned. Johnson, of West Jordan, was taken to a local hospital where she later died.

Liljenquist's ankles and lower legs were shattered. Though he has already had multiple surgeries and faces months of extensive rehab, he is expected to make a full recovery.

"My legs will heal and I'll be OK," he said.

Liljenquist is scheduled to return to Utah today. But his thoughts are with his friends killed in the accident. He couldn't hold back the tears as he recalled how Carter spoke his last words to him.

"I hope the community will rally around those who have lost loved ones. I'm in good shape, considering all things. We'd appreciate anything (the public can do to) help alleviate their suffering," he said.

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Liljenquist won a June GOP primary in state Senate District 23, which includes most of the southern portion of Davis County, and is the favorite in the race to replace retiring Sen. Dan Eastman, R-Bountiful.

A trust fund for Javier and Walfred Rabanales has been set up at all Wells Fargo Banks in Utah.

Trust funds for John Carter, 33, of Morgan, and Cody Odekirk, 19, from North Ogden, have been established at all Zions Bank locations. Both men worked for Focus Services. Donations for Jeff Reppe and Lydia Silva, of Illinois, can be made at any Sauk Valley Bank in Illinois.


E-mail: preavy@desnews.com