Carol's Speech for the Via Christi Hospital Foundation

Saturday Evening October 23, 2004, Wichita, Kansas

Good evening. It is an honor to be invited to speak tonight.

On the morning of October 10, 2000, my husband Eric and I were having cappuccino together and talking about our upcoming trip to Greece. On my way home from work that afternoon, I saw the smoke coming from Tyler Road. I watched the special report on the television. There had been a plane crash at Mid-Continent Airport. I had a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach, and I tried to phone Eric at work. I got his answering machine. It wasn’t long before the knock on the door came, and my life was changed forever.

I spent the next 9 days living in the Via Christi Burn Unit, and after that I only left sporadically for short periods.

They were the worst 36 days of my life--watching the man I loved fight to live. There were many tiny steps forward and big steps back.

Eric fought to live with a strength and tenacity that can only come from a person of incredible character. And to understand Eric, I must take you back in time.

My story begins with a brilliant little boy who from the time he could speak, told everyone “I want to fly high and fast in the sky”.

He covered his parents’ home with model planes which he built. He saved his pennies and bought aviation books, and he dreamed of being an ace like his WWI hero Eddie Richenbacher. The little boy watched every televised NASA launch and decided that someday he’d be an astronaut too.

When he was 6 years old, he started building rockets and began a search for the proper astronauts. He finally settled on the tiny ants he found in his parents’ garden. These ants had to be tough and they had to be brave, just like the real NASA astronauts. The little boy put the teeny ants through rigorous trials like cold weather testing, to simulate the cold of outer space. These tests were conducted in his mother’s freezer. And he spun them in a glass tube to simulate a centrifuge. Ants who passed the tests got to go up in one of his homemade rockets. And, when some of the rockets crashed to earth, the little boy saluted their bravery and gave them a proper military funeral.

As the little boy grew a bit older, he began to draw designs of airplanes and at 10 years of age he built and attempted to launch his homemade glider. Like the early tests of the Wright Brothers, the little boy experienced failures, but never gave up. Still determined to fly, at 19 years of age, he left for Parks Air College, the oldest aviation school in the country. And that was where I met the little boy, now a 20 year old grown man named Eric Fiore. I was 18 years old.

My earliest memories of Eric are those of a little tornado whipping around campus in his overalls, tools hanging from his pockets. He was working on his aircraft mechanics license and his pilots license. He was a native New Yorker, loud, talkative, funny, and absolutely brilliant. He had an opinion about everything and was only too glad to share it with the world.

One day in my first semester of college, Eric came bustling into the school cafeteria, a small piece of paper held high over his head. “I just got my pilot’s license! Who wants to go flying?” The guys ignored him. There was only one excited voice exclaiming “I’ll go!” It was me. Eric looked around in a panic. “I’ll go!” I exclaimed even louder. With a heavy sigh he agreed to take me. After the flight was over he explained his reluctance. The other girl he’d taken for a ride had thrown up. All over the controls.

I will never forget that flight. We landed on a grass strip and sat under a tree eating peanuts. On the flight back he asked if I wanted to see something cool. Before I knew it we were upside down in a barrel roll, and I found myself shouting “Do it again”!

We quickly became best friends--studying together, flying together, staying up late in to the night arguing about history and literature. And as time passed we fell in love. On May 30, 1980 I married my best friend. When people asked Eric later what he loved about me his reply was always the same “She doesn’t puke in the plane. Never marry a girl who pukes in your plane”.

Eric was a jokester, but he loved and felt with a depth I have never seen in another person. We were a team, Eric and I, and he used to say there was nothing we couldn’t do together.

After a short stint as a corporate pilot, Eric decided to go back to school. He had his A&P license, his airline transport license, and an Associate degree, but he wanted more. He wanted to design airplanes. He wanted to know EVERYTHING there was to know about his beloved planes. I worked to support us and 2 ½ years later he graduated first in his class with a B.S. in Aerospace Engineering. He impressed all his professors with his brilliance and insight. Equations spoke to Eric; they explained the world to him and he tossed complicated mathematics expressions around with ease.

He said after he got his B.S. that he was going to be an engineer. He promised. We even had joint jobs lined up in L.A. But airplanes were in his blood. I KNEW he would never sit at a desk. I just knew it.

He came home one day about 2 months before graduation. “I went to a Navy recruiter”, he said coyly. “ I want to fly jets off an aircraft carrier!”

My reply was something like “ I don’t think so! A hook has to grab the plane when you land! Honestly! What fool does that?” But in the end we compromised. Because that’s what being a team is all about. He joined the Air Force. He would get to fly jets, and I wouldn’t have to worry about big hooks and a husband who was gone at sea for ½ the year.

About 2 years later he graduated at the top of his pilot training class and got his dream plane, the F-15 Eagle, and the best assignment in the entire Air Force-- Camp New Amsterdam, Soesterberg, the Netherlands. Eric was hot and he knew it.

The Cold War was in full swing and twice a month he took his turn sitting alert in the bunker, jet “loaded for bear”. Once he was late getting home after sitting alert. He couldn’t get the grin off his face for days. It would be years before I got the story out of him.

It was a live scramble. Eric told the story with much flare and waving of hands. Ok, so those MIGS flying out of E. Germany had turned out to be geese, but it was cool anyway! And he added, straightening up just a bit. “And now that you know…It kinda makes you want to respect me more, doesn’t it?”

But Eric wasn’t just a cool pilot and a brilliant engineer, he was truly a Renaissance man. Having been raised by English teacher parents, he grew up reading literature, attending the ballet and symphony, and art museums. As an adult, Eric painted in oils, built beautiful pieces of furniture, raced cars, read literature and poetry, enjoyed nature and traveling, published several papers, was amazingly knowledgeable about many periods in history, and was an accomplished cyclist. But Eric was also a caring man who loved with his entire being. He loved his family more than any airplane. He often said the happiest day of his life was when he became a father.

In 1991, about a year after the birth of our second daughter, Eric’s Air Force commission ended, and he decided to get out of the service to pursue his dream of becoming a test pilot.

Fairchild Aircraft in San Antonio recognized Eric’s potential and he was hired to be a test pilot. It was about a week after he received the job offer that I heard him yelling. I found him, laughing and pushing a big white envelope down the hall with his nose. I looked at him as though he’d gone mad. “What are you doing?” The smile engulfed his entire face. “I’m pushing the envelope, Carol! I’m gonna be a test pilot!”

3 years later he was hired by Cessna to fly and test the JPATS trainer and we moved to Wichita. In 1998 Bombardier set out on a quest to snag up the best experimental test pilot in Wichita -- my Eric.

Eric worked long hours at Bombardier, but he seemed to love the flying and the RJ--his baby. By October of 2000 I had finished my second Master’s and was working at my beloved zoo. We had just booked a trip to Greece --just the two of us. It was to be a belated 20th anniversary trip. But instead of being in Greece, I ended up in a Burn Unit.

I had never been to a Burn Unit; I knew nothing about them. Truthfully, I didn’t even know there was a Burn Center in Wichita.

But there is, and as I was to find out…it is one of the best. Wichita is the air capital of the country and for that reason alone, Via Christi should have THE Burn Center of the country.

Because I can tell you…

There will be another accident. Someday, another plane will crash. And if I or someone I loved was on that plane, I know exactly where the best treatment in the country is.

Right here. At the Via Christi Burn Center. And I’m not just saying this because I liked the nurses or because Dr. Nicole Fearing has the bedside manner of a saint.

I’m saying it because I have Eric’s medical records. Why did I acquire Eric’s medical records? For one reason only. I’m writing a book about Eric and his life and his amazing fight to live. And because I chronicle the 36 days he spent in the Burn Unit, I felt I owed it to my readers to be medically accurate. Although I don’t have a medical background, I do have two Master’s Degrees in the sciences and I taught chemistry at WSU. I have painstakingly looked up terms and used the Internet and emailed numerous agencies and professionals in order to learn and understand those records so that I could piece those 36 days back together for my book. I have several medical doctors in the family who have also looked at the records. We are all unanimous in the statement I am about to make.

The Via Christi Burn Center did everything right. Everything. There wasn’t one thing that could have been done differently. From blood products to medicines to surgeries to revolutionary treatments and tests, Eric had it all. And it was done right. The entire Burn Center threw themselves into an almost superhuman effort to save my Eric. But without Eric’s strength of character, his will to live, he would have died in the plane with the other two pilots. Eric’s injuries were extremely severe and he was given almost no chance of making it through the first night. But he did. He fought with everything he had because he loved life and loved his family and because he was a fighter.

So to all the medical people at Via Christi Hospital--thank you. Thank you for all the care you took with Eric and for the support you showed my family. You never gave up. Even at the very end when Eric‘s chances for survival seemed to be slipping away, the procedure to save his only remaining eye was performed. The surgery was critical to insuring the viability of the eye, and you didn’t wait. You did it. I can’t tell you how much that meant to my family.

So where am I now? What am I doing? Am I okay? These are the questions I am asked most often.

This summer when I gave a short speech at the Smoke Eater’s Benefit, someone told me I was a “burn survivor”. “But I wasn’t burned”, I said. “How can I be a burn survivor?” “Ah”, she said. “But you are. You are a survivor and you are an inspiration to all these people because you don’t go around being a victim.” Well, if people see that about me and believe that about me, then I have made Eric proud. Because he used to say…

“Make me a promise if I’m ever in an accident. Don’t go around being a whiney wife and blaming people. If you do, that’s what people will remember about me. That will be my legacy. Everything I believed in and worked for and sacrificed for will have been for nothing. So do the right thing, Carol. Make me proud. Tell people about me. What I stood for and believed in. Don’t have a part in bringing down aviation, the thing I’ve believed in since I was a kid.”

Has it been easy to carry out Eric’s wishes? No. But no amount of blaming, no amount of whining is going to bring Eric back. Eric had a saying he used a lot. “Shit happens and it doesn’t mean it’s somebody’s fault.” And even if it is, whining wasn’t Eric’s style, and I won’t let it be mine.

We can never tell what the future holds, but someday in everyone’s life something terrible is going to happen. And as Eric used to say …

The way in which we deal with obstacles in our lives reveals our character.

Are you going to stand up and fight, or is it going to defeat you? Will you be a victim or a survivor? Some of the most amazing people I have ever met are burn survivors--not victims. Despite pain and disfigurement, they showed the world what they were made of, that like Eric, they have the ‘right stuff‘.

So am I okay, you might still be asking? It has been a difficult road these past 4 years. I met Eric when I was 18 and losing him was like losing a big piece of me. But unlike many people, I do have the comfort of knowing what the purpose of my life is, what I am supposed to be doing. And it’s very simple.

The meaning of life, of my life at any rate, is to do good. Because by doing good I can best honor Eric. And doing good works will help all of us. Because we’re all going to die someday. People don’t like to think about it, to face their own mortality. People are often uncomfortable talking to me about Eric’s death. They don’t want to think too hard about their own death. But maybe we should think about it. How do you want to be remembered? As a selfish brat that thought only of yourself? As a bitter whiner? As a self-indulgent fool? Or would you like to be remembered because you “did good things”? Because you cared about your family and your community? Because you made the world a better place just by being in it?

You are all the “do good” folks. You’re here because you do good. Because you care about others. And I thank you.

I have tried extra hard to do good in the past 4 years since Eric has been gone. My projects have not only helped me to get better, but I believe they have helped others too. And I hope that, in a small way, I am making the world a better place.

When people asked me for pictures and information about Eric, I wrote and set up a website because I believe that even in death, Eric will always be an inspiration to others.

I donated my family’s entire portion of the Challenger Fund to set up a permanent scholarship to send kids to Future Astronaut Training at the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center in Hutchinson. The good people of Wichita generously donated to this fund, and my family felt the money should stay here--in this community. That is why the scholarship is only available to students who live in Sedgwick County.

I have recently established a scholarship at Eric’s beloved Parks Air College of St. Louis University. And when National Geographic called to ask me if I would take part in their documentary about test pilots, I said ‘yes‘.

But still, I have been searching for a way to help the Burn Center here at Via Christi, and together with my daughters Tia and Robin, I believe we have come up with a way to do that. Robin will be telling you about the library in just a few minutes and Tia will be announcing our plan for a project we’re calling “Eric Baskets”.

And of course, I am writing my book. It has been 2 long years of hard work, but the end is in sight. I have just finished the writing and am currently in the editing phase. In the book, I chronicle the 36 days Eric spent in the Burn Center; I hope that it will help others experiencing a similar tragedy.

But the days in the hospital serve as the vehicle to tell the real story--the story of an incredibly gifted little boy, born a pilot, who went on to become a famous test pilot. A hero who sacrificed his life to make the skies safe for all of us. Because without test pilots, none of us could fly.

Eric was a man who loved his family and loved life and adventure. A man with a wicked sense of humor and a man with a great sense of responsibility. A man who, with his whole being, felt the joy of flying, and who in the end, died doing the thing he loved most.

Eric Fiore ‘did good’ in his life, and the world is a better place because he was in it.

Thank you for letting me tell you about him.