Have you ever met someone and knew immediately that there was something very special and remarkably unique about them? That someone is Jerry Schemmel, and his story is one of tragedy to triumph. Jerry doesn’t want to be considered a hero, but after hearing his story, there should be no question about his bravery.
It’s been 16 years since the fiery crash of United Flight 232 that left Denver for Chicago and ended up making an amazing emergency landing in Iowa that left the plane in pieces. One of the heroes of this harrowing but inspirational story is Denverite and Denver Nuggets Announcer, Jerry Schemmel, who was a passenger.
There were 296 people onboard; 112 died, including Jerry’s dear friend, Jay Ramsdell. Jerry was able to escape the burning cabin; but at the risk of further danger, he re-entered the wreckage when he heard a baby crying. Jerry walked back out with an 11 month-old baby girl. That baby, Sabrina, is now a happy, healthy 17 year-old teenager living in Arizona with her family.
Jerry came out of his experience with a profound vow to live every day to its best and a belief in something more powerful and larger than all of us. Jerry has authored a book: Chosen to Live which vividly details Jerry’s painful and emotional journey and is one of the most revealing and inspirational books you will ever read.
Jerry, you say in your book that carrying the 11 month-old baby out of the wreckage of a burning airplane was a reflectively human act - not a heroic act. Most people’s instinct would tell them to just keep running as far away from the plane as they could. In your case, isn’t it okay to be human and heroic? I’m okay with it; but I still feel that I should not be looked at as a hero, and I say that for a couple of reasons: We had so much time before we hit the ground and crashed knowing we were going to crash. For 45 minutes, we were told that we may have a crash landing, so I got myself ready mentally for what might happen on the ground, telling myself if I’m dead, then obviously I can’t help, but if I survive, I’m not going to panic, I’m not going to flee the plane, I’m going to help the best I can. I just thought about it for a good 35 minutes thinking “Stay Calm” – so it paid off; I was ready – or ready as I could be.
Secondly, I just believe, and I’m talking as sincere as I can here, a hero is somebody who weighs the risk, who knows what’s at stake, and does it anyway. I didn’t do that, I didn’t weight the risk, I didn’t stand there thinking it might explode, or I might not find my way back out – it just happened. I was there and I jumped in, I didn’t think about it; next thing I knew, I’m back inside the plane, then after that, I’m outside the plane with the baby – so no weighing of the risks, no thinking it through, and I think that's what a hero is - when he knows what’s at stake, knows the risk, but goes for it – like our military people, they know what they are getting into, but sign up anyway – that’s a good place to start for a hero. America loves the human-interest story. People tell me: “I have a new believe in the human spirit because you went back and saved that baby.” That’s fine if they want to believe that – but I know what happened; it’s all instinct and reaction. It was a baby crying; if you hear a baby, you are going to react.
There are other people who survived the crash of Flight 232 who prefer not to discuss or talk about their experiences at all. Isn’t it interesting how people handle similar experiences differently? Everyone has their own way of dealing with a tragedy. I learned early on after the crash, for some, it’s bottling it up. I happen to think that’s not healthy. When I look at the survivors that I know from our crash, I know that there were some 160 of us – and now this is just a general rule – the ones that have talked about it, dealt with it, confronted it, are the ones that are doing pretty well, and the ones that have held it back and not talked about it, or confronted it, are the ones who are still struggling – now again that’s not necessarily across the board.
I’ve decided that in the first years after the crash, it was part of my life, and it would never go away, and I’ll always be known as a crash survivor, and even thought it’s a scar that will never completely heal, it’s a part of my life. It doesn’t have to dictate my life, so I better just deal with it and be honest about it, and answer questions about it, and put it in front instead of behind, and that’s been healthy for me.
Has time softened the intensity of your experience? I have to say that whoever came up with the adage that time heals all wounds, never went through a tragedy. That is way off. Time lessens the pain from a tragedy, but it doesn’t make it go away – but the pain is softening with time.
You are a motivational speaker, what do you talk about, and has it changed through the years? Yes, I have a secular message, and a Christian message too. I speak at a lot of churches. The secular speaking has kind of changed and evolved over the years; it’s become a bit different.
What is your favorite Denver Nuggets moment? In 1994 in the playoffs, Game 5, the Nuggets were in Seattle, and we beat Seattle in the playoff series, and that Game 5 in Seattle was the most fun I’ve ever had as a broadcaster. It was close all the way. The whole set up before it was that the Nuggets were the 8th seed and barely got in that year, and Seattle was the 1st seed, and had the best record in the NBA. It was the first time an 8th seed ever upset a 1st seed in the NBA – and it was played in Seattle’s arena, and just all came together for us.
What is your favorite sports moment of all time? The 1980 U.S. Hockey Team winning Olympic Gold.
What is your favorite book of all time? It’s Not About the Bike, by Lance Armstrong.
What is your favorite sports movie? “Field of Dreams.”
In your book, you talked about the controversial movie “Fearless” starring Jeff Bridges, which is more or less your exact experience on Flight 232. What are your thoughts about the movie, and whom would you have picked to play you? Several thoughts: One, they took the liberty of changing the story and the title should actually have been “Fearful,” not “Fearless.” Second, to deny to me personally that it wasn’t my experience, really hurt me and my family a lot. One of the producers of the film publicly said it was based on my story on Flight 232, and then Warner Brothers who made the film, recanted and said “No, no he was wrong about that, it was a fictitious story.” I like Jeff Bridges; I could have done a lot worse than Jeff Bridges playing me.
What charitable organizations are you involved with? Children’s Hospital, Easter Seals – I’m the chairperson for the Easter Seals Basketball Shootout event, World Vision, the Tennyson Center, plus several overseas missionary groups, and I contribute to the school where my children go: Front Range Christian School and their charitable projects.
When you aren’t the Voice of the Denver Nuggets, what will we find you doing on your nights – and days - off? During the NBA season, I try to spend as much time with my family as I possibly can, and try to schedule as little as I can on off days or off nights.
In the summertime, I do a lot of cycling in fact I started a nonprofit called “Tour de’ Faith” which is a bicycle ride for charity. It takes place every summer in Colorado, and we are in our fourth year. It’s a three-day group ride through Colorado. We give the money to Children’s Hospital and to the Front Range Christian School, which is a non-denominational church with over 60 churches of all faiths represented. Those are the main beneficiaries. What the school also does is take some of the money and give it to other community projects like we send several people to India, and we bought computers for some very poor schools over there. I personally have a couple of other individual bicycling competitions I’ve signed up for this summer.
Is there a charitable event you really look forward to attending each year? The Nuggets put on a wonderful dinner called “Choppers Dinner” in memory of Chopper Travalini benefiting the Tennyson Center. Chopper was the former Team Trainer for the Denver Nuggets.
How do you believe sharing your story and experiences have helped others? Gosh, I’ve got a boxful of letters from people who have read my book. I think a few that stand out are: a Columbine High School student survivor who was in the library that terrible day, and I talked to him one-on-one, and he said that he read my book, and it really helped him to get through the tragedy. He’s out of college already, and he’s really doing great, but he really struggled for a long time. Then another plane crash survivor, who was on the Hawaiian air crash, where the door blew off taking off from Honolulu, contacted me after reading the book. She was struggling with a lot of survivors’ guilt, and she actually contemplated suicide. She said the book helped her get those thoughts out of her head.
I have heard that you keep in touch with, Sabrina, the baby girl you saved; is she about 17 now? Where does she live, and how is she doing? Yes! She is 17 now. I keep in touch by e-mails and cards, and we get a lot of pictures of her. I have not seen her since the crash though. She lives in Phoenix. I’ve never had a burning desire to keep getting together with her as the media thought I should. The media has tried forever to get us together and go on a TV show, and make this big rendezvous after 17 years. If Sabrina’s parent’s suggested that we should get together, I certainly would do it, but just for a media story, I don’t feel I need to.
Having my own personal family experience with a tragedy that involved a few family members surviving, and others who didn’t, there was a lot of guilt and despair coming from the survivors. Have you come to some kind of acceptance and peace over the trauma and loss you experienced? I can identify with that. The survivors’ guilt that hit me after the crash where everybody around me died; the guy to my left, the boy in front of me, the guy across the aisle; I was surrounded by people who died in the crash. I wanted to look in the mirror and see the luckiest man in the world, but all I could see was the guilt. People don’t understand that, but I can relate to it, and I still have those pangs of guilt these days.
You earned a law degree, but your career has steered away from law. Do you have any regrets about not pursing law as a profession? Not really. I still get involved in legal matters once in a while. I think in certain areas of law it’s fun. I practiced for seven years until I got into the NBA, and once I got into the NBA, I could afford not to do it.
Now for a really “loaded” question; several people wanted me to ask you if you believe the Nuggets will ever win the National Championship in our lifetime? Yes, absolutely. They have some great young players who are getting better and better at playing together as a team, and the coaching staff is excellent.
What in your opinion is the greatest problem this country is facing today? The discrepancy in this country between the rich and the poor, and some of the rich tend to ignore the poor. The human disregard for those who are less fortunate. There is ignorance and arrogance there, and I wish we could fill that gap somehow.
What can be done to improve our image in various places throughout the world that don’t think highly of Americans? I’m a firm believer in communication. I believe we need to keep working at opening up the lines of communication even more. If the leaders of our country could really sit down with their leaders who think we are so terribly arrogant, etc., and just get some more dialogue going, that could be extremely helpful in bringing us closer. Just more productive dialogue, more communication, more understanding between us - and trying to understand them, and them trying to understand us. This wouldn’t be easily done, but I’d love to sit down with the terrorists face to face and have them give me directly their reasons for their hatred and go from there.
Does it surprise or concern you to see what little regard some cultures have for life on this earth? I think a lot about how the world would be if everybody followed two: beliefs. One: To love your God with all your heart, soul and mind - and the concept of the Golden Rule which is to love you neighbor as yourself. Just think about how the world would be if you lived with those two philosophies with selflessness and compassion for other people - no matter who they are.
Is there something you still want to do or learn to do? I want to complete the RAAM; the “Race Across America,” and you have to qualify for it. When you write this, anyone that knows anything about it is going to think I’m totally crazy. It’s a race on your bicycle across America from coast to coast – San Diego to Atlantic City. And you have to finish the race in 12 days, average about 275 miles a day, and get maybe 3 or 4 hours of sleep a day.
Has Lance Armstrong ever done this? No, he’s never done it – yet, but I wouldn’t be surprised if he did some day. I would like to qualify this summer, and do the race in 2007 – before I get too old.
What do you think is your proudest achievement? I think – without sounding arrogant - it’s making it as a broadcaster in the NBA. I never got anything handed to me, I feel like I earned my way – it was a long road to get there. Another proud achievement is I feel good about the father that I am to my kids; to me that’s an accomplishment – the hard work that I put in to being a good father.
How do you want to be remembered by future generations? I’d like to be remembered as someone who was faithful – faithful to my family, the bible, and to help those less fortunate than I am. I want to be known as someone who didn’t just talk about it, but actually did it.
You have been through something we all hope we never have to experience, what words of wisdom would you like to leave us with? Everyday is just a gift; when I think about that little boy sitting in front of me on that plane; I think about that every single day. One moment he’s playing peek-a-boo with me, the next thing he’s gone. Dead at 18 months of age. I just know how things can change. Life can be snatched from us just like that, and we have to understand that every moment is truly a gift, and just to live it the best we can and to treat people the way you want to be treated.
Jerry Schemmel has appeared on the Regis and Kathie Lee Show, 48 Hours, CBS This Morning, Turning Point, The Today Show, Good Morning America, and the Oprah Winfrey Show. His book was featured in Reader’s Digest, Hoop Magazine, Sports Spectrum and Guideposts.