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Tuesday, December 19, 2017

In Other Words: Paul Stegeman Claims That Surviving a Plane Crash Began a Life of Adventure and Misadventure.

Headlines about the crash. Courtesy of Paul Stegeman. 
I have to be honest. I thought we were going to talk about a plane crash, but then all of these other events popped up in our conversation that I couldn’t help but stare a bit slack jawed in wonder.  At one point I said that the life of Paul Stegeman has a bit of a Forrest Gump-like nature to it, you know, someone who has been witness to many significant events but manages to escape unscathed. I’m a little ahead of myself, but it all started with a plane crash.

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Stegeman joined the Navy when he was eighteen in 1965. He was assigned to the USS Bon Homme Richard, an Essex class aircraft carrier, and went to Vietnam for his first tour of duty. He flew home for his first two week leave. It was November 6, 1967 and Flight 159 was taking off from Cincinnati to San Diego when the co-pilot believed that the plane came in contact with a plane that had earlier run off the runway and claimed to free from the runway. The TWA flight tried to abort the takeoff after hearing a loud bang that jostled the controls and movement of the plane. Speed, time, runway length, and bad timing worked against the TWA flight. The plane landed in a field. One person died and many were injured. And that’s when it all began. Its like what Stegeman told me, “I’ve had a lot of weird stuff happen since then.” But you have to hear this part of his story.

“It was Nov 6 and I was flying back out to San Diego. I was on Flight 159. It had been raining for days so the ground was saturated. A Delta plane had missed a taxiway and was stuck off the taxiway.” The problem was that Flight 159 was scheduled to take off on that very runway. The Delta pilot radioed that they were clear of the runway even though no one actually got out of the plane to check and no one in the tower got a visual confirmation.

“They (the tower) gave us the go ahead to take off. As we passed we heard a loud bang. I saw the right wing was on fire. We had just lifted off about that time.” Even though the official explanation for the bang was compressor stall, “some passengers on that side of the plane claimed that they saw the wing hit that other plane. It has never been proven whether there was contact or not. Either way, the wing was on fire at takeoff. We should not have been given clearance.”
Stegeman being interviewed. Courtesy of Paul Stegeman

“Just as we got off, the pilot put us back down on the runway. We were doing about 150 mph, take off speed. As we hit the runway, we pancaked and at that point the landing gear collapsed. We were skidding down the runway. I was on the left side watching the blue lights on the runway go by wondering how many of these were left. About that time they disappeared. We went down over a hill, went airborne again, skirted a road and then landed in some woods about half a mile away. The plane was on fire. The engines had ripped off. The fuel that ran out started to burn. The field was on fire. Even underneath the plane was on fire. So when we jumped out, we had to jump clear of the fire. It was maybe twelve to fifteen feet to the ground. We landed in all this mud. The exit chutes wouldn’t operate. There were some broken bones and lots of bruises and one person died the next day from injuries.” 

Stegeman describes the events as “slow motion. I thought, well, this is how it ends. It was kind of calm actually. There was nothing we could do. It was like being on a carnival ride.”  

He remembers that “It was deathly quiet. There wasn’t any screaming. I do remember watching a coffee pot flying out of the galley and in slow motion flew past us down the middle of the aisle. I remember that more clearly than anything. I just thought that was kind of weird.”

So another Navy passenger and Stegeman crawled up the embankment at the end of the field. “It was pitch dark. We could see the plane burning. We thought the fire trucks and ambulances would be there soon but this other fellow and I just got up and walked across the tarmac, blinded by the lights, but we were headed toward the terminal. We could see the lights. Turns out we walked out the gate where we boarded. All of these people were standing around watching this fire and we walked in pretty bedraggled and muddy. I asked the TWA guy there to help us. ‘Can you help us? Our plane just crashed.’ I knew my parents and brother were there to see me off. They watched the whole thing. My mom passed out.” 
Newspaper photos of crash. Courtesy of Paul Stegeman.

“They slammed us into a couple of wheelchairs and got us out of there. We found my mom. She thought I was a ghost! We had to wait for the FFA to get our statements. About then I started talking to a guy from Channel 9 News. He asked if I could come with him. I thought we’d step aside to talk but he put me in a car and I was live on the 11:00 news.” Some his fellow shipmates who happened to be home were surprised to see him on TV.

After getting a quick and superficial physical check up he flew out the next day to San Diego. Since he was a day late he was considered AWOL and was promptly put on restriction. Stegeman produced the local newspapers (seen here) as evidence but that didn’t quite satisfy his superiors. “I was restricted to the ship for being AWOL. I brought the newspaper and a letter from TWA but it wasn’t enough. TWA had to send a lawyer to verify that I told the truth. I didn’t think I would be arrested. Who in his right mind would arrest someone who was in a plane crash?” he asks.

Stegeman chuckled and said, “I’ve had a lot of weird stuff happen since then.” And this is where the conversation went a whole different way than I had expected.

So shortly after the crash, his ship played a vital role in the Tet Offensive in Vietnam. And when the spy ship, USS Pueblo, was captured by North Korea, Paul’s ship was sent off on that mission. “And then we  ended up in Vietnam again after that.” And during that time they weathered a few typhoons. “I miss the Navy and being out in the weather. We rode out a couple of typhoons. I enjoyed seeing the waves and power of the storm. I slept really well then. We had hammocks on the ship so we were rocked to sleep.”

Stegeman won’t deny that perhaps he has been cursed. “Oh, yeah. I kid about that. People kid me about how terrible my luck is. Even though it’s bad, something good happens. I survived a plane crash relatively unscathed. I had a black bear make a false charge on the Appalachian Trail while I was backpacking. My brother and I had a grizzly bear pursue us on a backpacking trip in Alaska. It chased us across a river. Then it stood up, snapped it jaws, and made a huffing noise.” Having been attacked by bears before, I can attest to how frightening this is and how fortunate we were to sit in a coffee shop and chuckle about these wild encounters with certain death.

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I joked with Stegeman that he seems to be the guy who has tried to die for a long time but was never successful. He laughs. “You know, I had a normal gall bladder operation but they nicked me (an internal organ) and I died on the table. I woke up in ICU with my hands tied and tubes down my throat.” 

And then there was his second heart attack. His first one happened while digging a hole to plant a Christmas tree.  “There was another Stegeman in St. E at the same time and his records were mixed with mine.  While hunting for a stent, they paralyzed my left diaphragm and punctured my airway.  Found out they mistook the patient when the heart surgeon called my wife by the wrong first name.  She said he looked confused then scared when he realized I wasn't who they thought.  Woke up in ICU that time too - hands tied, tubes down my lungs.  I swear someone paid big bucks to put a curse on me!   All you can do is laugh about all the stuff that has happened!”

And the list goes on. “We were on our first bus tour of Europe in 1972 when we pulled into Munich just as terrorists killed the Israeli  Olympic team. They wouldn’t let us off the bus. We left right away.” 

Then again. “We were in Grenada the week before the Communists took over.” 

Then again. “We were in Panama the week before the US invaded to get President Noriega” in one of the most well known and noisy military interventions.

And then things happen around the house. “I was bitten by a brown recluse spider. It was hiding in my shoes that I kept in the garage to mow.”

“I’ve had a lot of weird stuff happen. It has always been near us but hasn’t affected us.” 

His wife of 47 years, Mary Beth, nods in affirmation.

His dad worked for the mob during the 1940s. “He emptied the slot machines. Had a body guard and everything.”  He paused and then added.  “Red Masterson (a well known local mob boss) was at our wedding. He even sent Care Packages to me in the service.”

Then there’s the whole international spy thing. “I worked for a start up company in Paris, France that was located in the CIA building there. The French police thought I was a spy because I came and went from the CIA building. They even had someone follow me. We were over there on vacation with Bernie Blau and we kept seeing the same guy wherever we went. We were on a Hemingway tour having a drink at every bar Hemingway went to. We saw a guy who always had a note pad with him. Finally Bernie asked him who he was. He admitted that he worked for the French government and they thought I was a spy. He laughed. He knew I wasn’t but we went to a lot of nice places and he enjoyed that.”  So now he is an international man of intrigue.

And what’s a trip to Mexico unless the brakes on the tour bus go out. Right? “The brakes blew out on a bus during a remote tour in Mexico. They had to drive through the night without brakes.” A little unnerving and dangerous, but he just accepts it as commonplace.  And these are not even all of the stories he told. There are many, many more. And each one is as equally entertaining as the last one.

Stegeman reflects on some of his adventures and chuckles. “Yeah, I’ve had a lot of adventures but the new ones all seem to be medical.” Injuries to his spine from the crash have developed in severity and dog him today.

If there is one thing that can be said about Paul Stegeman, he has a gusto and adventurous attitude toward life. “Yeah, but what’s the alternative?“ he asks. Good answer.

Paul Stegeman tells his amazing story.

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