Tuesday, January 05, 2021

‘Best Christmas gift’: 40 years later, plane crash survivor gets to thank his rescuer

“As much as I might try to keep technology at arm’s length, I mean, here’s the positive side of what it can do and why it exists,” says Eric Whiteside, photographed with his wife Rachel Hewitt, who received the Facebook message that led to Eric finally connecting with the man who pulled him from the wreckage 40 years ago. “And then of course I just thought, At the end of 2020?? You know what I mean? It’s just been such a year, and then you get this little gift?”

Bill Preston with his grandson KJay Autullo.

Cessna 172N, N5093G

Eric Whiteside and his wife, Rachel Hewitt, were not far off from bedtime, and — aside from the pandemic, which saw them spend the occasion as a party of two — Christmas Day 2020 had to that point unfolded in about as pleasantly normal a fashion as they could have hoped.

They’d exchanged gifts and eaten a late brunch. They’d gone for a walk through their charming slice of the Dilworth neighborhood in Charlotte that afternoon. In the evening, they turned on the TV and watched the new “Wonder Woman” movie.

But just after 9 p.m., Rachel discovered a vaguely mysterious message waiting for her on Facebook.

“Hello there,” wrote the sender, a man from Florida who appeared to be less than half their age. “I know this is going to sound a little odd, but are you married to Eric Whiteside?”

Rachel didn’t recognize the person at all. When she showed her phone to Eric, no bells rang for him either. So she shrugged and tapped out the only tactful response she could think to give to this strange young man’s strange question: “Yes, I am. Do you know him?”

They fell asleep before hearing back again, only to wake up the next morning to a mind-blowing explanation.

“I do not personally, but” — the young man said to open his reply, before getting right to the heart of the matter — “I believe Eric was in a plane crash in Florida many years ago and my grandpa was the one who actually pulled him out of the wreck and saved his life.”

Eric and Rachel would have been less surprised to have woken up to see Santa Claus standing in their bedroom.

After all, it hadn’t just been “many years.” It had been a full 40 years since the small Cessna airplane crashed onto a residential street in Venice, Florida, killing both his pilot father and his uncle. Forty years since Eric narrowly escaped as the lone survivor, though with no memory at all of the crash.

For much of that span of time, Eric had tried to forget what happened. But on the Sunday after Christmas, when he picked up the phone to speak with the man who plucked him from the plane all those decades ago, he was ready.

More ready than ever, perhaps — to try to remember.


The ink was still fairly fresh on David Whiteside’s private pilot’s license when he guided his rented Cessna off the runway in Sarasota just after 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 22, 1980, to make the 20-minute flight down to the municipal airport in Venice.

In the back seat was his son Eric, then 16, who David had flown that morning to their previous hometown of Tampa, for a quick business trip that doubled as a chance to get Eric in to see the orthodontist that knew his mouth and his braces best. In the front passenger seat was David’s younger brother, Mark, whom they’d made a special pit stop to pick up on the way home, Mark having flown into Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport from St. Louis to visit for Christmas.

There wasn’t necessarily a reason to fly that day — the tiny town of Nokomis, where the family had re-settled, was barely 80 miles from Tampa and just 20 from Sarasota. But the decision served other purposes, too.

For one, it was a unique father-son activity, and it marked just the second time Eric had gone up in the air with his father at the controls. On top of that, the Whitesides were firmly middle-class, and becoming a pilot had been David’s way of trying to demonstrate that he rose above the ordinary. To an extent, in fact, David’s reason for flying instead of driving on this day was simply to show off a little.

Whether or not his brother Mark was duly impressed, no one will ever know. But it certainly worked on young Eric.

“I remember taxiing up to the gate (in Sarasota), and there’s this big 727 at the gate next to us, and we got to walk out onto the tarmac. ... I just thought the whole thing was so cool,” Eric recalls now.

Beyond that, though, there’s not much more to his side of the story about their fateful return trip.

He remembers taking off from Sarasota. He remembers seeing some clouds outside the window, illuminated by the lights on the plane and the light from the moon hanging in the sky. He remembers how short that last leg of the flight was supposed to be. He remembers turning himself sideways and putting his legs on the seat next to him — he’d had his growth spurt and was 6-2, 6-3 at the time — to stretch out.

And he remembers starting to doze off.

“Then when I ‘woke up’ ... it was the next day, and I was in the hospital bed with my mom there beside me,” Eric says. “She started crying, and she told me that Dad and Uncle Mark had died.”

Eric, meanwhile, escaped with a bad head wound requiring 15 stitches and likely would have been home sooner if not for an ailment that confounded doctors for several days: a malfunctioning aortic valve that was causing his resting heart rate to be twice what it was normally and putting him at risk of heart failure.

Then, as mysteriously as the issue came on, it went away, and by the time he was discharged that New Year’s Eve, you would have had to look pretty closely to tell he’d just been in a deadly plane crash.

In the aftermath, he recalls, his mother Jan — suddenly solely in charge of him and his younger sister, Lisa, then 12 — “decided that the way we should point our noses was forward.” This meant, among other things, hiding the newspaper articles about the crash, and avoiding conversation about what happened.

So although he eventually heard secondhand stories about the crash and varying accounts of how he was plucked from it, he never did any of his own research or detective work because ... well, because basically that’s just not the way he’d been wired.

He wasn’t actively discouraged by anyone from trying to get more information, Eric says, but rather it just really didn’t cross his mind much to try to do so. On the rare occasions when it did, he’d lose interest quickly.

“Maybe 20, 25 years ago, I made kind of a effort to try to just dig up what I could find in the early days of my Internet experience,” he recalls. “Didn’t really find anything. The Venice paper hadn’t switched the archives to digital, for example, so I didn’t really get very far. I just kind of gave up and kept moving forward.”

Perhaps the most deeply that he’s reflected upon the event in recent years was in 2008, when he and his wife, Rachel — who at that point had been married for about eight years — agreed to record an interview with each other about their respective fathers’ experiences as pilots.

It was done for StoryCorps, a national nonprofit that facilitates interviews of regular people conducted by friends or family members, and in it Eric says “somebody in one of the houses heard it (the crash) and came running out and saw the plane and ran over to it. ... He pulled me out of the plane ’cause he thought — he was worried about it catching on fire.”

But, he adds, “I never met him. I never went back.”

Eric and Rachel recorded that, to a certain degree, for their own edification. They thought maybe someone somewhere someday might stumble upon it and find it interesting to listen to, but as much as anything they just did it to share in an experience as a couple.

They never could have imagined that, 13 years after the fact, that recording would reunite Eric with his rescuer.


Bill Preston vividly remembers the night a small plane crash-landed in front of his house, and in the 40 years since, he’s told and re-told the story countless times — usually when any subject related to airplanes comes up, probably because small planes don’t crash-land in front of people’s houses every day.

His story goes like this:

In 1980, Bill, his wife, Valerie, and their young children were living in a house in South Venice that sat on a dirt road directly across the Intracoastal Waterway from the municipal airport.

Three nights before Christmas, the family was in the rec room when they heard a crashing sound outside of their house. Bill rushed to the front window and when he looked out into darkness, made murkier by fog, he initially thought what he was seeing was the wreckage of a car crash. But as his eyes quickly adjusted, he realized it was an airplane.

He bolted outside and tried to process a surreal scene. The plane apparently had descended too low over the woods next door to his house, clipped a tree, and come down, taking out a light pole and smashing into his car and mailbox as it skidded — upside down — to a stop right on the edge of the water.

There were power lines wrapped around the fuselage, and power lines on the ground on the street, but he disregarded any potential dangers and went straight for the wreckage. He found two men in the front seats, “and I could tell right away that they had passed,” he recalls, but heard someone moaning in the back and found a tall young man, hanging upside down in his seat belt.

Bill unbuckled him and pulled him out of the plane. “He was real strong,” Bill recalls, “and he kept trying to get up, and he kept fighting me ... so I ended up sitting on his chest. And I realized that he had a head injury that was bleeding pretty bad, so I held my hand over the wound to try to stop it from bleeding.”

EMTs and firefighters arrived a few minutes later. There was just one problem — they were on the wrong side of the waterway. Bill tried yelling, but they couldn’t hear him. It took another 10 minutes or so for them to realize their mistake.

After they finally arrived and were able to tend to the young man, Bill went off to the side and threw up.

The crash of course made the local papers, and there were investigators around his house for a few days afterward, and he thought about the young man he’d pulled from the plane; but then Christmas came, and New Year’s came, and he got distracted by life, until the only connection to the event that he maintained was through this crazy story he’d tell, about the time a plane crashed in front of his house.

“I used to wonder about him all the time,” he says. “I don’t know why I never pursued it. I probably should have, but it never happened.”

Two Fridays ago, though, after Bill told the story yet again — during a Christmas Day gathering at his home in Spring Hill, Florida, outside of Tampa — two members of his family took it upon themselves to pursue it for him.


As soon as Bill was done telling the story, Peter Tillema pulled out his iPhone and started searching Google for Cessna plane crashes in Venice.

“Not that I didn’t believe what Bill said, ’cause I mean, Bill’s a real stand-up guy. I trust him. In the short time that I’ve actually known him, he’s the real deal,” said Peter, who had become an extended part of Bill’s family when Peter’s daughter, Kathleen, married Bill’s grandson, KJay Autullo, on December 12.

“It was just that I wanted to find out if there was anything written up on it. If there was any more information.”

Bill had mentioned he remembered from news reports that all the victims of the crash shared the last name Whiteside, and when Peter added the name to the search terms, he landed on a link to what looked like a podcast recorded in 2008 by a Rachel Hewitt and Eric Whiteside of Charlotte, North Carolina.

In the summary description at the top it said, plainly: “Eric recounts the plane crash that killed his father and uncle but spared him.”

He went into the living room to show his discovery to KJay, who’d been sitting on the couch half-listening the whole time, and KJay immediately was intrigued. Over the years, he had heard his grandfather tell the story dozens of times, but not once had he thought to poke around on the Internet to see what might be out there.

They both looked at the interview transcript, and though it was computer-generated and therefore often bordering on gibberish, KJay says, “We realized, OK, although this may not be the people, this story is pretty darn close to the exact one my grandpa tells. ... I told Peter, ‘We need to at least track these people down and see if we can’t get them in touch.’”

So KJay casually did what comes naturally to 26-year-olds — he fired up the Facebook app on his phone and searched for an Eric Whiteside in Charlotte.


But then he looked for a Rachel Hewitt and found a woman who looked a lot like the one in the photograph attached to the interview Peter had found in the StoryCorps archives.

At 6 p.m. on Christmas Day, KJay sent a Facebook message to Rachel Hewitt.

“Hello there,” he wrote. “I know this is going to sound a little odd, but are you married to Eric Whiteside?”

Two days later — and 40 years after their lives intersected for the first time — Eric Whiteside picked up the phone and dialed Bill Preston’s number.


“Wow,” was the first word out of Eric’s mouth.

“I suppose I should start with thank you, and in the middle I’ll say thank you again, and at the end I’ll say thank you again,” he tells Bill. “I just — I’m floored. It’s been 40 years.”

They trade their sides of the story, and though they’re stories both men have told hundreds of times, this is probably the most captive audience either of them has ever had for it.

Then they tell each other about how their lives have turned out.

Bill explains that he just turned 70; has been married to the same woman for 53 years; has six grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren; spent 40-plus years working for Ford Motor Company and then ran a car dealership before retiring; and has survived four heart attacks and three strokes.

Eric explains that he’s 56 and that he got married later in life (in his mid-30s); and gives an overview of his career — how he dropped out of seminary school after two years and wound up teaching high school in Port-au-Prince, Haiti; got a master’s in teaching at Duke University; then — after a couple of years spent teaching in Denver, Colo. — came to Charlotte, teaching for another 24 years (at Northwest School of the Arts, William A. Hough High School and Myers Park High School) before retiring on Sept. 1.

“About three weeks later,” Eric tells Bill, “my wife threw me a surprise retirement party on Zoom ... and for 3-1/2 hours, I had over a hundred kids — adults now — show up to this Zoom party. In China, in Australia, all over America. A lot of them had actually gone on into teaching, and they showed up and they said thank you. We laughed and we cried. It was beautiful.

“And when KJay contacted us ... I started thinking about one of our favorite Christmas movies, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ The story, the punchline, is ‘If you hadn’t been born, what would not have happened?’ And I thought about it: If you hadn’t pulled me out of that airplane, how many kids would I have not seen, or touched, or been a part of their lives?”

A few of days later, a reporter asks Bill whether he feels like he genuinely saved Eric’s life, and Bill dismisses the idea.

“I don’t look at things like that,” he says. “It’s just one of those things. I just did what I thought I had to do.”

And who knows? Bill confirms on the call with Eric that there was no fire, and that the engine had separated from the plane and was 50 yards from the fuselage. So it’s certainly conceivable that, if Bill had stood his distance from the wreckage that night and just waited for first-responders to arrive, the outcome for Eric would have been exactly the same.

“If we’re gonna put a real fine point on it and be real technical, perhaps he’s right,” Eric says in response to that notion. “I don’t think I was gonna bleed out from the head injury. Maybe (getting me out quickly) helped my heart in some way. I don’t have the info or the insight to know.

“But if we just think about how I feel about it — how I feel about what happened that day — I credit him with giving me a new lease on life. With him changing, in a sense, the trajectory of things. Yeah, maybe, technically I could have survived it. But he initiated a process that has led to me sitting here. And everything I’ve done in the intervening 40 years. And to me, that’s — I’ll call that saving my life.”


Eric does exactly what he says he would do: In the middle of his conversation with Bill, he says thank you again, and at the end of it says thank you again.

“I’m feeling really just light as a feather, light as a cloud,” he tells Bill. “I mean, this has been the best Christmas gift I can imagine, to have this connection.”

“Well,” Bill says, “I’m glad everything turned out really good for you, ’cause you’re on my mind more often than you realize. It’s just one of those things where I often wondered whatever happened to you, so I’m glad everything turned out so great.”

They agree to stay in touch. They agree that if either has more questions for the other, they can call anytime.

They even agree that they’d like to meet in person at some point, perhaps the next time Bill travels north to visit his wife’s family in the Knoxville, Tennessee, area.

“I’d drive to Knoxville in a heartbeat if you were gonna be there,” Eric says. “I absolutely would."

For Eric, it would be less than a four-hour trip.

Meanwhile, Bill tells him it usually takes them 10 hours by car to get there from Spring Hill.

It would be faster for him and his wife to get on a plane, sure. But there’s one thing you should know about Bill, something he doesn’t mention to Eric but that is revealed in an interview with him a few days later:

Bill — for good reason, one could argue — has always been afraid of flying.

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