Fifteen years after surviving a horrific plane crash, Andy Bedard finds his calling in Cambodia
By Daniel Otis
Smithfield, Rhode Island – September 1997. The engine sputtered and died and the plane dipped. It was only two minutes after take-off, at a height of 150 metres – too low to jump. The nose tipped heavenwards and he wanted to shout to the pilot, tell him to bring it down, but there was no voice and there was disbelief and as the plane slipped into a stall he saw the runway rushing closer and he felt cold all over, so cold that he grabbed around him, looking for a blanket: protection that wasn’t there. The earth sped towards them and he forgot the cold and braced for impact and the next thing he remembers is screaming, his screaming, and trying and failing to crawl away from the twisted remains of the Cessna and his friends.
“Skydiving is eternal discovery,” Québec native Andy Bedard, 49, says. “After you do your first parachute jump, you understand why birds sing.”
Bedard sits in his Phnom Penh home. His eldest son colours at a nearby table. His youngest keeps dashing towards wires, electrical sockets, glasses – anything and everything he shouldn’t be touching. Laughing, Bedard chases the one-year-old. He beams with fatherly pride. Fifteen years ago, a doctor told him that he’d never walk again.
“Life,” Bedard says, “is meant to be enjoyed.”
It was a clear day. 5:30pm. Orange light was beginning to slant in the west and from above, a sea of trees shifted, their leaves just starting to change with the approach of autumn. Bedard had been teaching skydiving all summer.
Three of the men on the plane were his housemates and co-workers. The pilot was also a friend. “We were like family,” Bedard says. “We were all living in this beautiful world of Peter Pan.” Their student, Nicole, was going to be married in two weeks. Her parents and fiancé watched from the tarmac.
Bedard was going to tandem with Nicole and speculates that the larger parachute cushioned the impact of the crash. He was in the back of the small plane. He wasn’t wearing a seatbelt. When the plane hit nose-first, restrained bodies absorbed the full force of the 30 G-force crash. Bedard bounced around inside the plane. The world stopped. He couldn’t move. His vision swam. Disorientated. A voice told him to stay still.
Then he felt arms under his shoulders, lifting him. He felt relief. He heard someone shout: “Fire! Run!” He was dropped. The scene was saturated in fuel, there was an explosion and Bedard covered his eyes. Bedard screamed: His legs were burning and he couldn’t move. That’s when he thought he was going to die and he prayed to go fast as the flames licked through clothing and flesh.
Then flames were doused and he was pulled from the wreckage. He remembers voices, shifting colours, shadows, the whipping rotors of a helicopter, being placed onboard, then nothing but black and the white collar of a Catholic priest, the overwhelming stench
of cheap cologne and the words, “I’m sorry, but you’re the only survivor.” The world went dark until he woke up delirious with drugs and overwhelmed with pain. It took months for his emotions to break through the shock.
“The loneliness was one of the hardest parts,” Bedard says. “I wanted to be able to call one of my friends that was involved in the accident, but there was nobody… A day doesn’t go by where I don’t think of them.” His voice grows weak. In an instant, I see him reliving every step of the crash, his torturous recovery, his physical and emotional pain.
To Bedard, nothing was impossible so long as he was in control. “I was invincible,” he says. “I never thought anything could happen to me.” His life was high-risk – skydiving, flying planes, base jumping – but he was always confident because of his preparedness.
“The accident taught me that you can’t control everything,” Bedard says. He had a lot of time to meditate on this.
He spent weeks in an American hospital, receiving surgery after surgery that his insurance only partially covered. Multiple fractures to his pelvis and tibia. Extensive nerve damage in his legs. Sacrum crushed. Collapsed lung. Right arm broken. Second degree burns blackening two-thirds of his body. Bills amassed – Bedard is still paying them. His insurance company refused to repatriate him to Canada.
“I was lucky,” Bedard says. A friend and former employer agreed to fly him home free of charge and, for a year, Bedard recuperated at a rehabilitation hospital in Québec. “I had been completely independent, but now I had to rely on others for everything.”
“I had to use a plank to get into my wheelchair, and even that was as scary as jumping out of a plane. I didn’t want to fall off – I was in so much pain.”
Around Bedard, other patients fought to reclaim a sense of normalcy in their lives. Others, however, crumbled in the face of arduous and protracted convalescences.
“In the hospital, there was this small smoking room that they had for the staff. I saw this guy – my roommate – in there. I froze for about two minutes. I couldn’t understand why he was smoking: he had just survived thorax cancer. I said, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re so lucky – you have a second chance.’ He just looked at me. He had lost the drive, the spirit. He didn’t feel anything. A year later, he passed away.”
Bedard’s recovery was characterised by an unyielding positivity and strength of will that bordered on obstinacy. When he told his doctors that he would be walking out, they only shook their heads. Bedard refused to give into pessimism, doubt, fear. He set small goals for himself. Getting up unassisted and brushing his own teeth, for example, were causes for euphoria.
“It was the no pain, no gain attitude that I learned playing football. I kept saying that I would be 110%. The doctors thought I was being naïve. They didn’t understand – if I only aimed at 80%, I’d end up at 60.”
An extra incentive announced itself: Bedard fell in love. Anne-Marie was a fellow patient, a car crash survivor. “One goal was to wash my hair by myself,” Bedard says. “I wanted to look sharp for her.” He laughs. “I was a mess. I still don’t know what she saw in me.”
Since his accident, Bedard has worked as a pilot (flying both chartered flights and medical evacuations in the icy reaches of northern Canada), in business and in banking. He continues to skydive.
From meeting him, you would have no idea of what he endured. He does not volunteer his story. When pressed, he attributes his survival, recovery and successes to luck.
I’m not sure if I agree. Luck played a role, but I do not think Bedard would be where he is today without his monumental perseverance and enduring optimism that manifests itself in an unbridled passion for life that is both infectious and inspiring.
In 2007, a month after getting married, Bedard and Anne-Marie moved to Cambodia. “Living in Cambodia is a lot like skydiving – I’m constantly being bombarded by new sensations and emotions.”
In Cambodia, however, Bedard has witnessed a phenomenon he calls “tropicalisation”.
“Things that we would never do back home, like driving a motorbike without a helmet, become habit,” Bedard says. “When you’re in paradise, you don’t see the dangers.”
Life, Bedard says, is full of surprises. Not everything can be controlled, but it’s important to avoid being careless and to know risks and prepare for them.
Since September 2012, Bedard has worked as Cambodia’s country sales and marketing manager for International SOS – a company that helps its clients manage security and health risks via its information resources and a 70-country network of medical clinics, call centres and evacuation hubs. Bedard sees this as a natural step in his long and varied professional career.
“After the accident, a lot of people said, ‘Look, why do you think you were spared? Why do you think you were the sole survivor?’ I just had no clue. But I like what my brother told me. He said, ‘Andy, maybe the reason you survived is to help save somebody else in the future.’”
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