That afternoon, Hannah Luce boarded a twin-engine aircraft headed for a Christian youth rally in Iowa. She was wearing bright red Lips sunglasses, her mother’s lavender blouse and black spandex leggings.
With Austin and Garrett, two of her best friends, seated next to her, she took exactly four smiling pictures on an iPhone.
Eight water bottles sat in a cooler behind the seats.
Luce, a 2011 ORU grad, remembers these minute details because she sees them, regularly, in nightmares.
The plane carrying Luce and four other friends caught fire and crashed into a rural Kansas field about 4:30 p.m. on May 11, 2012.
Recent ORU graduates Luke Sheets, 23; Stephen Luth, 22; and former ORU marketing instructor Garrett Coble, 29, were killed on impact.
Luce remembers being on fire, the black spandex melting to her legs. She remembers offering up a prayer for mercy before they hit the ground and following Iraq veteran and friend, Austin Anderson, 27, to the road before being found by two women in a minivan.
She remembers finding out in the hospital that Anderson died from his injuries early the next morning.
Eighteen months later, sipping a Starbucks coffee, Luce, 24, sat on the ground in the super bargain aisle of a Mardel bookstore to talk about the memories of these friends and how she’s trying to preserve them.
Luce traveled from her current home in Chicago to Tulsa for a book signing on Oct. 28 to promote “Fields of Grace,” released Oct. 22.
As more than 30 people filed by for autographs, Luce is bubbly and expressive.
She laughs. Necklaces swinging, she hugs people over the small table. “You’re a survivor,” she tells them. “It’s nice to meet you. Thank you for praying. You’re a healer of the world.”
She touches her burns, patches of pink and yellow mixed with cream. Almost 30 percent of her body needed skin grafts.
It hasn’t been easy. Writing helped.
“Writing the book was a sign for me because I was approached about it right around the time of the four boy’s funerals,” Luce said. “I felt as if it could be a memorial for them. I needed a way out.”
Her “way out” came while she was still in the hospital, an experience blurred by skin surgeries and morphine.
She knew she had to write the book immediately, for fresh purpose and clarity. For Austin and Garrett and the boys who didn’t deserve such a death.
“I think that was the first time in my life that I realized I wasn’t a victim. I was a survivor,” Luce said.
Luce’s book collaborator, Robin Gaby Fisher, met her the day she came home from the hospital.
Fisher, a two-time Pulitzer finalist and director of Rutgers University’s department of journalism, wondered if it was too soon to write about the tragedy.
“There were many times in the course of the writing where I said, ‘Hannah, are you sure you’re ready?’” Fisher said in a telephone interview last week. “But she insisted it would help her heal by talking about it over and over and over.”
In the book, Luce clarifies facts about the crash.
Contrary to most news reports, Anderson did not pull Luce from the burning plane. She hoisted herself out of a partially crumpled door.
Gasping for air, she then saw Anderson, charred and bloodied, walking with his characteristic Marine swagger toward her.
Aside from his upright gait, he was unrecognizable. Anderson led Luce onward to a road, even with 90 percent of his body burned. She knows he saved her.
Luce would recall several saviors from that day. One arrived with the initial batch of first responders. He held her hand in the ambulance.
Fire Chief Duane Banzet, of Neodesha, Kans., recalls seeing Luce for the first time and noticing a sense of serenity in her and Anderson’s eyes.
Later, Banzet would tell Luce it was the peace of God.
When he walks into Mardel for the book signing after making the two-hour drive from Kansas, Luce gets up to embrace him. She introduces Banzet as “the fireman who saved me.”
The last time he had seen Luce was when she came to Kansas to visit the crash site.
“She was really struggling at that time, and it was just pretty overwhelming — the grief and sadness she had,” Banzet said.
He was amazed at the smiling and talkative young woman at the bookstore. He was even more amazed at the miracle Luce demonstrated more than 30 times that night: writing.
“Seeing her hand as badly damaged as it was that day and seeing her write autographs on books brought so much joy to me because I honestly didn’t know if they’d be able to save her hand,” Banzet said.
For much of their meeting, Banzet is perfectly content to sit in a folding chair behind Luce as she signs the books with a black sharpie. He watches her small hand deftly scribble word after word.
After the crash, he wrote Luce letters of encouragement.
When his phone rings for an interview on the afternoon of Nov. 1, Banzet quickly answers.
“I got her book finished yesterday and was in the middle of writing her a letter when you called.”
Luce said his written messages helped her heal.
“It was so incredible to see him,” she said. “He and I are very close.”
To fill her days, Luce works on her new non-profit Mirror Tree, an organization dedicated to reintegrating refugees. She records music and writes.
“One thing I’ve learned is that I have to keep creating,” Luce said. “I still go through Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but it actually fuels me because the flashbacks, nightmares, whatever, end up creating something .”
Her journey has also been one of faith.
Fisher, her book collaborator, found this surprising.
“I found a girl who was really questioning her faith,” Fisher said. “I think that struggle made me realize my own vulnerabilities with faith and made me think a lot of thoughts about my own faith….She was very brave to be so honest.”
Questions about how the crash has changed her view of God make Luce pause.
“Let me think about it for a second,” she said.
Sips coffee. Pause.
“The thing about deliverance is that it’s never immediate,” Luce said, slowly. “The kind of things we need to be delivered from are never what we think.”
Luce goes on to explain how she wants to hear other people’s survival experiences. She extends an invitation for students from her alma mater to send her their stories.
“If I were to say anything to ORU students,” Luce said, “this is what I would say: The journey of faith is evident within the soul, not because we say it is, but because we’re still breathing.”