On the morning of Dec. 28, Wade Berzas was excited to be heading to Atlanta to watch the LSU football team play Oklahoma in the Peach Bowl.
With a mix of humor and humility, Berzas recounted Thursday for the first time publicly how his life changed in less than a minute that day when the small plane he was on crashed and burned in Lafayette, killing all on board except him, and how he believes God helped him through the recovery.
Lance Strother, co-owner and co-founder of LEAD Professionals Group, interviewed Berzas as part of a virtual Faith and Family Speaker Series by Our Lady of Lourdes Regional Medical Center in Lafayette.
The interview can be viewed on the Our Lady of Lourdes Facebook page.
After the twin-engine Piper turboprop plane crashed moments after takeoff from Lafayette Regional Airport, breaking apart and burning in a field near Feu Follet Road and Verot School Road, Berzas remembers lots of noise.
"I expected at some point the lights were just going to go off and I was going to die, because that's what happens in plane crashes," he said. "People don't make it. Then, by the grace of God, everything got quiet and it stopped, and when it stopped there was a moment of 'I'm alive.'"
Berzas kept telling himself, "I've got to get home, I've got to get home, I've got to get home."
Still strapped into a seat he described as a small chair attached to a piece of metal smaller than a coffee table and with fire around him, Berzas unbuckled his seat belt and headed away from the flames and towards daylight. Stumbling and falling to his knees several times in the wet field, Berzas began reciting the rosary, asking Jesus' mother, Mary, for intervention.
"In that moment, she gave me peace," he said. "From that moment I never thought I was dying. I was convinced I would live."
Two men crossed the field and helped Berzas to a safe place near the road where he sat until medics arrived. Looking back at the field, he realized how catastrophic the crash was and that not everyone on the plane would survive.
All five others aboard the plane — Gretchen Vincent, 51; Walker Vincent, 15; Carley McCord, 30, pilot Ian Biggs, 51; and Robert Vaughn Crisp II, 59 — lost their lives.
Not wanting his wife to see the crash on the news or Facebook, he borrowed a phone from one of the people staying with him. Just a few minutes after the crash, he was on the phone telling his wife the plane crashed but he was fine. He really believed at that time he was OK. She packed an overnight bag, not realizing they would be at the hospital 52 days.
Berzas knew he had a dislocated shoulder and burns. It wasn't until he was in an Acadian Ambulance on his way to our Lady of Lourdes that Berzas overheard a medic say he had second- and third-degree burns over 70-80% of his body. As a former volunteer firefighter, Berzas knew that wasn't good news.
"My first response was, 'Dang, it's going to be a long recovery,'" he said.
Failure, Berzas said, wasn't an option. With peace granted by God, he said he never wavered in his mindset that he would recover.
Doctors believed Berzas would spend three months in the burn unit. He spent only 52 days in the hospital and physical rehab.
"It's one of those things that can only happen by the grace of God," he said.
Berzas praised his wife, who never left his side. Even while on a ventilator and unconscious or in his dreams, he felt her presence. He also thanked Acadiana for prayers and other support, from family and friends who packed the hospital waiting rooms to pray, to residents of his home towns of Mamou, Church Point and Mire for donating blood, and to the people who provided meals for his family while he recovered.
The ordeal, Berzas said, has brought him closer to his family and faith, and made him realize material things aren't important. It wasn't a big new truck that motivated him to climb out of that burning plane, he said.
People’s prayers saved his life during recovery, Berzas said.
"It was a miracle. Not just the plane crash but the recovery."
Berzas said he hopes people take this lesson from his experience: Everything you have is on loan. Nothing is guaranteed. In a minute life can change or end. He urged people to take nothing for granted, to reach out to people you've hurt and ask forgiveness.