LUFKIN, TX (KTRE) - Exactly 27 years ago today, a 9-year-old boy was the lone survivor of a plane crash that killed three people.
That boy was Nick Freeman of Lufkin. The Douglass coach and teacher, husband, and father told East Texas News how the life experience shaped his mission to help others, even if it means boarding a plane, his worse fear.
"I don't look at these very often, but I go, how does anybody walk away from that," Freeman said.
Yellowed newspaper articles tell the story of a fiery plane crash in California that Freeman survived 27 years ago Wednesday.
"I've never even read these," Freeman said.
Freeman never had to. He remembers the event like it was yesterday.
"I can remember everything pretty vividly. I remember all the sounds," Freeman said. All the smells. I was scared."
Two passengers were unresponsive. The pilot, Freeman's father's best friend, talked the boy to safety.
"And he said, 'Nick, you're going to have to get out. I'll be right behind you,'" Freeman said. "He was trapped, but I didn't know that, but he was able to turn around and undo my seatbelt."
Nick ran through flames.
"I still remember yelling, somebody help me. Help," Freeman said.
A 21-year-old witness came to Nick's rescue.
"The guy that saved me, Marty Gooding, was saying how I kept asking him, 'Don't let me die. Promise me I'm not going to die,' and so he said he went home and was crying about that because he didn't know the outcome, but he kept telling me I was going to be okay," Freeman said.
For over a week Nick remained in critical condition. Then he heard a familiar voice.
"Ten days later I heard my mother's voice," Freeman said with a laugh. "And I just remember hearing that and thinking I knew I was going to make it. A few days later, I flew to Texas, and I was in Galveston a few weeks and never missed a day of school."
The life lessons for Nick began to surface, such as a mother's love is measured by sacrifice.
"A lot of people don't know this. She was in the last semester of nursing when my accident happened, and she had to drop everything to take care of me," Freeman said.
There were times scars made the child feel different.
"My initial view of myself was Freddie Kruger because that's who I could relate to," Freeman said.
However, as a grown man, Nick values his appearance after turning down reconstructive surgery.
Freeman displayed the striking difference between his right and left profile. When he was asked whether walking around with those scars still bothered him, he said no.
"That's my testimony," Freeman said. "That's who I am."
Freeman attributes being saved as a 17-year-old at the church where he still attends for teaching him.
"I'm blessed because I still have life, and I have the ability to do something," Freeman said.
For Freeman, that means something like traveling to Haiti to help build a church, school, and clinic or Mexico to spread the Gospel, even if it means boarding an airplane.
"When I get off the airplane, my friends will laugh at me because I'll be completely sweated down because I'm so nervous," Freeman said.
Freeman said answered prayers pull him through.
"I can't let my fear control me. That's a big thing for me," Freeman said. "My faith has to better than my fear."
Nick is hoping his children and others who hear his survival story will learn a lesson about the value of life.
"To look at everyday as being … a big day," Freeman said. "Make it worthwhile. Make life worthwhile."
In preparing for today's interview, Freeman read those newspaper articles for the first time. He became curious about the 21-year-old man who came to his rescue. Freeman has reached out through social media to who he believes is the person who saved him. He wants to say thank you.
If you have a survivors story to share or know of someone who has overcome a life challenge, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.