The captain's homecoming
A firefighter injured in a plane crash returns to Station 53, whose crew mustered help from the day he went down.
By LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 11, 2002

A firefighter injured in a plane crash returns to Station 53, whose crew mustered help from the day he went down.
SAFETY HARBOR -- It was supposed to be a normal eight-hour day. But it would be more than two months before Capt. Jim Hensel of the Safety Harbor Fire Department would return home after a plane crash that left him partially paralyzed from the waist down.

Doctors said he would probably never walk again. Hensel fought to prove them wrong as his buddies at the Fire Department worked to support him. They rushed to his side to look after him and planned fundraisers to help him with his medical needs.

And they were there Saturday, when he returned from rehabilitation in Atlanta to the Safety Harbor firehouse.

"I had my ups and downs," Hensel said. "No one ever thinks they're going to wind up like this. I've had some pretty dark days and good support to pick me up. They always seem to show up at the right time."

On Aug. 30, Hensel, 40, was working his second job as a co-pilot for Care Flight International air ambulance company. He was transporting a woman with lung cancer from Marco Island to Lexington, Ky.

The Lear jet landed on the runway about 1 p.m. at Blue Grass Airport, and things were going without a hitch until pilot Miles Lansing tried the brakes. They didn't work, so he immediately deployed the reverse thrusters, which also failed, according to chief flight nurse Diana Burgess.

Hensel grabbed the emergency brake and said, "Hold on -- this is going to make a mark."

The jet swerved off the runway and sheared a navigational tower, severing its right wing, before it plunged down a 50-foot hill onto U.S. 60, where it clipped a coal truck.

During the crash, Hensel's head was thrust down as his legs flew up. He could hear the violent shriek of metal scraping concrete and felt his back snap as the plane skidded across six lanes of highway to the shoulder of the westbound lane.

The tail end of the jet burst into flames.

Hensel knew he had to get out. But he couldn't move.

Bystanders rushed to the scene. Within three minutes, the Lexington fire department arrived and crashed through the fence around the airport. A 140-pound firefighter and former jockey pulled Hensel, who weighed 270 pounds, from the plane.

The patient, Louise Babb, died in the crash; and her husband, John Babb, sustained critical injuries. The pilot suffered a concussion; and Burgess sustained multiple injuries, including severed arteries in her legs, which were both broken.

Hensel fractured one of his vertebrae and shattered another. He was taken to University of Kentucky Medical Center. He underwent back surgery to stabilize his spine and was put on a ventilator because he couldn't breathe on his own.

* * *
Two hours after the crash, Mike Eash and Capt. Ray Duke were on duty at the fire station when the call came. They heard about the accident but didn't know much more.

"It was horrible. We never in our lives thought about Jimmy having a plane crash. He's one of the best pilots I know," Eash said.

Hensel joined the Fire Department about 19 years ago as a volunteer. About a decade ago he reached the rank of captain.

He was Eash's first partner when Eash came to the station in 1988. And he was Duke's former roommate.

The firefighters up in Lexington pressed the hospital to give the guys in Safety Harbor more information.

A couple of hours later, they got the ominous news. They needed to get Hensel's wife, Lori Hensel, up there that night.

She was by Jim Hensel's side early that evening. Eash, Duke and local union president John Little flew to Kentucky a couple of days later.

They took care of Lori Hensel and made sure Jim Hensel was getting top medical care.

"It took a load off my mind," Hensel said.

The day before his buddies left, the doctors removed the ventilator.

"I understand what the brotherhood means now," were among Hensel's first words, Eash recalled.

His crew back home was figuring out how to support him while dealing with their own shock.

"Jimmy is a tough teddy bear. He'd give you the shirt off his back, but he's tough on the rookies," Duke said.

Safety Harbor firefighter Tom Peters, 21, was one of those rookies.

"When I started off, I was really scared of him. I stayed back and tried to be quiet."

But fear grew to admiration, and Peters said he was devastated by the news of the accident.

"He's my captain, my leader. I looked up to him. He was the man," Peters said.

Dave Pacheco, who had worked with Hensel for about 16 years, got the news while he was visiting family in Connecticut.

"The call put me in a hole I couldn't get out of," he said.

The news of the crash spread through the county. A couple of times a week, the Safety Harbor firefighters were getting calls from other local firefighters asking how they could help out.

Meanwhile, Hensel struggled with his own recovery. Initially, he was fitted with a contraption called a halo to stabilize his spine.

About a week after the crash, he was flown to Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specializes in rehabilitation of spinal injuries.

Within a couple of weeks, the halo came off and by the end of September, the guys who worked on his shift came to visit.

It wasn't just his brothers in the fire department who looked out for him. Hensel received a note from Judge Joseph Donahey, a former taskmaster for the Largo High's Band of Gold, which Hensel was a member of until he graduated in 1980.

Donahey, who lost his sight during back surgery about four years ago, has had his own tragedies. He told Hensel that he could reach the goals that he set for himself and that the Band of Gold family would be there cheering him on.

And when he felt he couldn't take another step, Donahey wrote to him, "I'll be right behind you with my yellow pad screaming in your ear."

* * *
Hensel stood for the first time about a month ago. On Oct. 14, he was able to go about 60 feet with his walker.

On Thursday, his therapist led him on a half-mile journey through Shepherd Center. He worked his way down about five flights of stairs and, using his walker, he made it up and down a slope at the hospital called the "red carpet."

He flew to Tampa Friday. Using a walker, he hoisted himself out of his wheelchair to hug Burgess, who welcomed him at Tampa International Airport. She was joined by his sons, Daniel, 7, and Scott, 17, and several firefighting buddies.

On Saturday, Hensel returned to Safety Harbor Fire Station 53. A flag was raised on the ladder of his fire engine and the windows were decorated with a white shoe-polish message: "Welcome Home Jimmy. We love you man."

He was greeted with cheers from about 50 firefighters from throughout northern Pinellas. Also, there were friends, family and co-workers from Safety Harbor City Hall, where Lori Hensel works in the finance department.

The road ahead will be tough. He was diagnosed with an incomplete spinal cord injury, which means some but not all signals from his brain to his lower limbs are blocked. It could take a couple of years for a complete recovery, if ever.

Hensel's legs are still weak, and he relies on a wheelchair most of the time.

"My goal is to get back to work at the fire department. And I would like to fly again," he said.

For now, he added, "I'm just happy to be home."

To help
A trust fund has been set up for Capt. Jim Hensel at First Baptist Church of Safety Harbor. Donations can be made to First Baptist Church of Safety Harbor, c/o Jim Hensel, P.O. Box 356, Safety Harbor, FL 34695.