Six years ago this Sunday, four of my work colleagues from Focus Services and I boarded a 14-seat, single engine airplane in Guatemala City to fly to a tiny airfield in northeast Guatemala. We were on our way as part of a Choice Humanitarian expedition to build a school in a rural Kekchi Indian village. I was the first one on the plane and chose a seat on the small bench at the back of the plane, a decision that would save my life. My friends and seven other expedition members took the remaining passenger seats as the two pilots started the engine.
It was a beautiful morning, the sky a clear blue as we took off and settled into a flight scheduled to last an hour and 15 minutes. Forty-five minutes later, 10,000 feet above the jungle of Guatemala, without warning, the plane’s engine overheated, churning out black smoke and filling the cabin with the smell of burning oil. Moments later the engine crunched to a stop, sending a shudder through the plane, and leaving us in stunned silence. I could see the propeller blade straight up, motionless, through the windshield.
Four minutes later we crashed into a small field ringed with trees. Ten people, including my friends and coworkers John Carter, Lydia Silva, Jeff Reppe and Cody Odekirk died in the crash and subsequent fire. Another, a sweet woman and mother of three from Utah named Liz Johnson, later died of her burns. But for where I was sitting, the angle of impact and the two brave Guatemalan farmers who rushed to the scene and pulled me from the burning plane, I too would have died. The wounds of this tragedy are still fresh, even after six years.
John Carter was 33 years old, a devoted husband to his wife Lisa and father of three beautiful children. I worked with him every day, and so enjoyed his keen intellect and affable nature. John loved everyone, and lived such a life of service and goodness that everyone I have met who knew him loved him back.
Lydia Silva was a single mother of two who turned 29 years old the day before she died. She loved being a mom and gave me updates about her two children every time I saw her. Lydia worked hard to support and teach her children, making the trip to Guatemala, in part, to show them how much she valued serving others.
Jeff Reppe was a 26-year-old dare devil who loved motorcycles, resulting in more than a few speeding tickets. He was full of life, always fun to be around, easy to joke with, but he was mature beyond his years. Jeff honored and revered his parents, Ron and Pam, looking out for them, working alongside them, and keeping them close every day.
Cody Odekirk, at 19 years old, was already a superstar at Focus. His supervisor, worried about having him gone for a week during a critical time, offered to send him on a cruise if he passed on the trip to Guatemala. Cody wouldn’t hear of it. He wanted to serve and found great meaning in it. He was a good man.
Each year, Focus Services, the Roy, Utah based company that sponsored our expedition, holds a memorial 4-mile run to commemorate the lives of John, Lydia, Jeff and Cody. The sixth annual Focus-4-Run is this Saturday morning at 8 a.m. at 4051 S. 1900 W. in Roy. Registration is $20 and all proceeds go towards the Focus Employee Scholarship fund established in their names. For more information, please visit www.focus4run.com.
Dan Liljenquist is a former state senator and former U.S. Senate candidate.