By Stan Friedman
SANTA ROSA, CA (September 21, 2011) – Scott Peterson, pastor of children’s ministries at Redwood Covenant Church, is trying to sort through agonizing spiritual questions and emotions after witnessing the crash of a P-51 Mustang at the National Championship Air Races last Friday.
Peterson was photographing (accompanying images) the race when the plane stalled and plummeted to the edge of the grandstands and disintegrated. In addition to pilot Jimmy Leeward, 11 people were killed and about 70 injured by hurling debris.
Peterson has been flying since he was 18 and is part owner, along with two other church members, of a single-engine prop plane. They and several other friends, including the 14-year-old son of a Redwood member, had traveled to the show for just the day.
“I am an airshow junkie,” Peterson says. “I try to make every air show I can.”
What he saw in a moment at Friday’s show will stick with him for a lifetime. “Based on his flight path we thought we were dead twice,” Peterson says. “We ended up being about 300 feet from the site, but a prop blade stopped about 15 feet from us.”
Leeward most likely lost consciousness at one point before the crash due to the G (gravity) forces, which possibly also broke his seat, Peterson says. “We knew the plane had no pilot. We just froze because we couldn’t tell where it was going to hit until the last three seconds.
“The enormous explosion, followed by abject silence, and then screams that carried a duality of being both from the pit of Hell to cries of anguish reaching to Heaven seeking the ears of a benevolent God, is something that can’t be described,” Peterson says.
Neither can the fear of not knowing whether good friends had been killed. “One of our friends was on the other side of the accident and he thought it had hit us. He dropped everything and ran toward us, right through the debris field and carnage.”
The friends tried to call each other, but the cellphone lines were “instantly jammed. He couldn’t find us because we moved.”
They moved in order to search for another friend who had been sitting five rows away from where the plane hit. “We went to the top of the bleachers, and I searched for him with my long camera lens and kept calling.
“What I saw through that lens is a scene I’ll never forget. There was a child in a wheelchair that was obviously severely injured and no one was paying attention to him. Then I realized he was gone. There were legs and arms on the ground. There was the upper half of a man.”
Peterson didn’t say anything because the 14-year-old was with him. “The pastor in me wanted to run down and help, but the announcer kept telling people to stay away. All I could do was stand there and pray. I didn’t even know what I was praying for.”
Peterson finally was able to call the friend who had been sitting next to the crash site. “All I heard was a quick ‘I’m okay’ before the phone cut out,” he says. “But we didn’t know if he was in an ambulance or laying on the ground. Almost two hours later we found him.” The friend had been blasted with shrapnel and aviation gas.
It was hard to believe the friend had survived without at least being seriously wounded. “He could have reached out and touched the plane,” Peterson says.
“On the way home we listened to the news,” Peterson says. “The initial reports were incredibly inaccurate and made us angry. Some of it was even fabricated. But what struck me the most was how the rest of the world on that freeway was completely oblivious to the horror we had just witnessed. Life went on as usual. But it didn’t for us. We can’t seem to make sense of it and our minds are screaming for order and meaning.
“At the moment I’m wracked by survivor’s guilt,” says Peterson. “Why didn’t I get hit? Why did I deserve to walk away completely unscathed? And to be truthful, I’m sitting here as a pastor with tremendous guilt thinking, ‘Where was God? Why couldn’t the plane have been divinely nudged just 50 more feet north as we were all praying as it came down toward us? Why didn’t God wake the pilot up so he could regain control of the plane?’ It’s an ugly place to be because the common religious clichés bring me no comfort.”
Shared suffering is helping him to cope. “On Sunday morning I saw a puppet hand on the floor and instantly had to fight off tears,” Peterson says. “When my friends arrived and we saw each other, we instantly teared up. Congregation members who heard we were there approached us in tears and expressed their gladness we were still here. On and off all day my wife and daughters hugged me, tearfully at times. And I kept thinking of the thousands of people who experienced the same thing that were now at home pondering life like I was.”
There is not time to simply ponder, however. “On Sunday, I was back to being a children’s pastor and making ducky name tags for kids.”