Commentary

Austin Hatch surrounded by support

Michigan basketball recruit who survived two fatal plane crashes makes progress

Updated: October 10, 2011, 2:22 PM ET
By Elizabeth Merrill | ESPN.com

FORT WAYNE, Ind. -- They were a true family, one of the most admired in Fort Wayne. The father was a doctor who worked with cancer patients and burn victims and specialized in managing pain. The stepmom loved young Austin Hatch as if he were her own.

Kimberly Hatch hated the word "stepmom." "There are no steps in this family," she and Dr. Stephen Hatch used to tell the boy before they got married. She adopted Austin; he eventually called her Mom. Kim didn't tell many people this, but she would go to Julie Hatch's grave sometimes, alone, to leave flowers. She wanted to make sure the grave site was tended to when Austin and his dad went to visit. Of course, Austin would never forget his mother. He still kept pictures of Julie near his bed, eight years after her death.

But life wasn't about sad stories. It was about plunging forward, and, by God, Hatch's son was going to make the most of it. He wouldn't just excel at Canterbury High School; he'd get straight A's. He'd be one of the best basketball players in the state of Indiana, one of the most popular kids at his school.

[+] EnlargeAustin Hatch
Chad Ryan/The News-SentinelAustin Hatch received recruiting attention from several NCAA Division I basketball programs. He's said he plans to go to medical school eventually and be a doctor.

Life was to be lived. That's what Hatch taught Austin. In the eight years since the plane crash that killed Austin's mother and two siblings but spared a father and son, Hatch tried to cultivate normalcy. If he fell apart, where would that leave Austin? Time passed, and eventually, in spite of all the horrible memories, they got back into a single-engine prop and flew again. Life was to be lived. Hatch was, at his core, a pilot, and Austin was meant to ride shotgun.

The night of June 24 was a time to be together. Kim had just gotten back from a trip to Joplin, Mo., where she had gone to help tornado victims. She drove 10 hours the previous night to make it back for this flight, tired but full of inspiration. She took a seat next to her husband in the front. Austin made his way to the back, near his labradoodle, Brady. He had earned this vacation. Although he was barely removed from his sophomore year of high school, Austin had just accepted a scholarship offer to play basketball for Michigan, and his dad was over the moon about the kid starring for the maize and blue. "One of the best weeks of my life," Hatch texted a friend on Father's Day.

Still brimming with pride and love, he bypassed a big trip to Spain for his parents' 50th wedding anniversary. He wanted to go to their cabin on the clear waters of Walloon Lake, to spend time with his boy, his wife, their dogs. His family.

The Beech A36 took off about 5:30 p.m. from Smith Field, one of America's oldest surviving aviation sites. Everyone at the smaller Fort Wayne airport knew Hatch, in part because he had helped save it from its demise. The air was cool, which was not uncommon for a late-June night in northern Indiana. It was an ordinary night. Two hours and two diverted destinations later, the plane sputtered in the fog and mist. And then it crashed in Charlevoix, Mich., into an unoccupied garage just below a basketball hoop. Stephen and Kim were pronounced dead on the scene. Austin was badly injured and remains at Munson Medical Center in Traverse City, Mich., recovering from injuries to his head, ribs and leg.

His progress is being chronicled on a Caring Bridge page that has received more than 129,000 visits from people across the world. Many of them are complete strangers, who, in the days since June 24, have been riveted to the story of a 16-year-old boy who once again has somehow survived the horrific wreckage that decimated his family.

Austin's followers pray and type encouraging notes, which now fill nearly 100 pages. They ask the same questions.

Why again?

How much suffering can one kid handle?

Who will take care of Austin Hatch now?

A tragedy rarely discussed

The chances of one family being involved in two deadly plane crashes are, according to an international aviation expert, extremely slim. You are more likely to win the lottery.

Had the fog never settled in on the Michigan peninsula the night of June 24, had the giddiness of the nine days before that worn off sooner, maybe the story, at least for now, would've ended at a pizza parlor on the north side of Fort Wayne.

Maybe Stephen Hatch would've wrapped up the party celebrating Austin's Michigan commitment and said goodbye to the local TV folk, and the sports guys would've done two years' worth of stories about Austin honing his skills to play big-time basketball for the Wolverines. Some were unaware of his sad back story -- the first crash. Austin rarely talked about it among friends, let alone complete strangers lugging cameras.

Austin Hatch
AP Photo/The Journal-Gazette/Michelle DaviesAustin competed in the IHSSA high school regional basketball tournament in March.

College coaches marveled at his maturity. It was as if they were talking to a 25-year-old, so smart, so together, so unafraid.

Austin, Canterbury coach Dan Kline says, never talked about the first crash. But it was clear to everyone around them that an even deeper bond between father and son was forged afterward. "I've often told my wife they were like brothers," Kline says. "They just were. They did a lot of things together. They were very close. But you know, when your mother and your brother and sister get killed in a plane crash, and you and your father are the only ones [left], you've got to be close."

Austin wanted to be a doctor, just like his father. They'd fly up to games in Ann Arbor when Austin was a freshman and sophomore. The scholarship offer, two years before his graduation, was a dream come true for father and son. Michigan was where Julie Hatch had matriculated. NCAA rules forbid Michigan officials from commenting on Austin Hatch because he's an underclassman with an oral and nonbinding commitment, but his dad was so proud that he didn't mind talking to reporters that day. And that was perfectly fine. A source with direct knowledge of the situation at Michigan says coach John Beilein and his staff were drawn to Austin because of his leadership, his basketball IQ and his ability to make shots from a distance. He fit the profile Beilein is trying to cultivate at Michigan of young men eager to compete not only on the basketball court but in the classroom.

So on June 15, the first day coaches could offer rising juniors, the Wolverines called about 2 in the afternoon, and Austin quickly accepted.

That night, Kim called 800 Degrees Wood Fired Pizza, Austin's favorite place to eat, and booked a table for 22 for an impromptu party. She didn't mention that they were regulars or that Austin had just committed. The Hatches didn't like to throw their weight around, says Matt Rogers, general manager of the restaurant. They never acted as if they were special.

But somehow everybody knew. The place erupted into the Michigan fight song when Austin arrived, and his seat was draped in a Wolverines blanket. When they met near the kitchen, Hatch grabbed his son and smothered him in a big hug. Hatch bought dessert for complete strangers on his side of the restaurant that night. He figured they might have been inconvenienced by the party, and he wanted to make up for it.

"He seemed to be a pretty laid-back and easy-going guy," Rogers says. "But I remember vividly the amount of joy on his face was more than I'd ever seen. He was just kind of beaming."

Father and son savored things. They would visit the pizza joint frequently, Stephen ordering a beer and Austin settling in for the usual: garlic bread and pizza with pepperoni and sausage. They'd linger and talk long after the check came, in no particular hurry to be anyplace else or with anybody else.

When Austin told coach Kline he was taking the weekend off to go to the cabin with his family, Kline was pleased. The kid needed to take a break, to enjoy himself, to just be 16. And that time of year, the Michigan peninsula is a popular place to be.

The typical route is a picturesque 5½-hour drive through tall pines and past sparkling lakes, but that's not how the Hatches would get there. The choice was clear: They'd get there through the sky.

The crash

Five-year-olds in jerseys down to their knees are playing T-ball two blocks from where the plane fell from the sky. A mother leans against a fence, imploring her son, a curly-haired infielder, to stop plopping down in the dirt. "Rocky," she says, "pay attention." But the kid won't budge. Seagulls fly overhead; a plane touches down in the distance. Aside from a boarded-up garage down the road, there is little indication that a plane recently crashed here, in an ordinary neighborhood in Charlevoix.

No, if something this horrible happened in this resort town on Lake Michigan, with miles of petunias and smiling ladies selling fudge, it should've left a bigger dent, should've made a bigger sound. A couple who lives near the house says it sounded, at most, like a fender bender at the stop sign across the street. They ran outside expecting to see drivers reaching for insurance cards and wound up staring at an airplane jutting out of a garage.

[+] EnlargeHatch Family Plane Crash
AP Photo/The Petoskey News-Review/Heather LockwoodThe Hatch's single-engine plane crashed right beside a basketball hoop in Charlevoix, Mich.

The man, a Michigan fan who had never heard of Austin Hatch before June 24 and doesn't want to give his name, started yelling, "Can anybody hear me?"

Fuel was pouring out of the driveway. The man was so stunned he forgot he was holding a lit cigarette as he sprinted across the lawn. He didn't see Austin, who was partially ejected, didn't hear Brady, the labradoodle who was found six blocks away the next day, unscathed.

The plane, according to Charlevoix Deputy Chief of Police Scott Hankins, was diverted from Boyne Falls to Boyne City, then was sent to Charlevoix. Hankins declined to say why the family was diverted twice, but it was obvious weather played a role.

Sometime around 7:30 p.m., Hatch broke through the clouds at 200 feet, which, according to international aviation expert Greg Feith, was well below what the airport's approach allowed. The engine increased power, and the plane, according to a preliminary National Transportation Safety Board report, entered a left turn, then turned back to the right around a water tower.

Feith wonders why Hatch was determined to land in Charlevoix. "They were extremely poor conditions," he says. "Your visibility may be a mile, but up in the air, that's dramatically reduced. Plus you've got to fly the airplane, you've got to watch the altitude, watch the air speed.

"We have a term in aviation called yankin' and bankin'. You're trying to roll the airplane, and to turn it, you've got to maneuver it. But all the while, you're making sure that you don't hit things outside the window like that water tower. So there's a lot of things going on. At 200 feet in the mist, it's a lot to try and handle."

On June 25, a Saturday, news of the crash made it to Hatch's hometown of Saginaw, Mich., by midafternoon, but many were so stunned by it that they were convinced they were stuck in a bad dream cycle. Mike Boyd, a college football teammate of Hatch's, was on the sideline at the Michigan high school all-star football game. When the words "plane crash" were whispered, Boyd froze. "Steve already had his plane crash," he says. "That family has already been torn apart. You're thinking, 'This cannot be happening.'"

Instant mutual respect

That first week after the crash, it is believed coach Kline commuted 11 hours each day, round-trip by car, to see Austin in the hospital. Kline is not a young man, nor has he known Austin very long. They connected quickly.

The Canterbury job, on the surface, looked like an odd detour for Kline when he accepted it last year. The old coach had spent three decades at Indiana Tech and had a basketball floor named after him. Canterbury has very little tradition in boys' basketball -- or most other sports, for that matter. The Cavaliers don't even have a football team. At Canterbury, a small, private school surrounded by rolling hills and perfectly manicured grass, students are taught to compete in the classroom, and they do so successfully. One hundred percent of the school's graduates go on to college.

But Kline, who tried to retire in 2008, was intrigued by the idea of getting back to what he loved, working with kids. And Austin immediately responded to his coaching. They took Canterbury to its first sectionals championship. They got people talking about something besides pop quizzes and snowstorms in February.

[+] EnlargeCanterbury School
Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.comAfter Austin committed to Michigan, his father, Stephen Hatch, sent an email to some of Canterbury's faculty thanking them for helping put Austin in a position to succeed.

With a grade school bearing the same name down the road, Canterbury is close-knit. Some of its students have been together since kindergarten and are known as 13-Year Clubbers when they graduate. The familiarity forms tight bonds between classmates and teammates. In some cases, it ramps up the competition.

"Don't get me wrong," athletic director Ken Harkenrider says. "There are times where people are vying for the grades and vying for the spots in these big schools. But it's still a place where most people acknowledge that they want other people to succeed, as well. It's a place that falls in step to celebrate everyone's success and falls in step to support people when they need a little extra help."

Harkenrider has been at Canterbury since 1989, and he knew some of what Austin and his father went through eight years ago. He remembers the bandages Hatch wore for the burns he suffered trying to pull his family out of the plane. He knows that so much of who Austin is traces back to who Hatch was.

Austin's dad was a persistent man with long arms and sure hands. In high school, he had an entire page of the St. Peter and Paul yearbook dedicated to him because of his athletic achievements and managed to graduate near the top of his class. He was homecoming king, and his future wife, Julie, was queen.

"He was a standout at everything," says Boyd, who played football with Hatch at Alma College in Michigan. "I saw a video of Austin, and they move the same way. He holds his head high like Steve would and looks you right in the eyes. They're just strong people.

"You can tell he was raised to be proud of who he was, to be very respectful, to carry himself with confidence and class. And that's Steve all the way."

Hatch was self-deprecating and gracious and appreciative of all he had. Sometime in the middle of the night of June 15, after his boy committed to Michigan, Hatch sent an email to some of Canterbury's faculty. He thanked them for helping put Austin in a position to be successful.

In that one short year, Hatch became close friends with Kline. The coach was drawn to his charisma and the way he made everyone around him comfortable.

The first 48 hours after the crash were a media circus, complete with reporters camped outside the hospital and unauthorized medical updates. Austin's family, who scurried to get flights back from Spain upon hearing news of the accident, requested privacy and asked people close to him to respect that and limit their interactions with the media. Before that request, Kline was sort of an unofficial point person who delivered hopeful dispatches on Austin.

He told people that Hatch is as strong as a horse and that he'd get through this. He said he was confident the kid eventually would fulfill his dreams and make it to Michigan.

"I think what lies ahead … a lot of it is going to involve Dan [Kline]," Harkenrider said. "I really do. Certainly, Steve laid all the groundwork in terms of Austin being as humble and gracious as he is. Dan is the perfect complement to that in the sense that he would keep him honest."

An unquenchable love of flying

Kline and many others have puzzled over this question: Why wasn't Austin afraid? A two-hour flight in a single-engine plane is enough to scare the average white-knuckle flier who's never been in an accident. But Austin, at the age of 8, already had experienced enough tragedy to carry him through a lifetime.

Yet, somehow, he still wanted to be in the sky. He would point out planes flying and recite their model names to friends. He was working on becoming a pilot, Kline says, just like his dad. "I would tell you this," Kline says. "He loved flying. I mean, when they would go somewhere, they would fly. He'd say, 'Coach, it beats driving five or six hours in a car. The best way to go is fly.'"

[+] EnlargeHatch Family's first crash site
Elizabeth Merrill/ESPN.comThe rural area in Uniondale where the Hatch family crashed in 2003.

The details of that first ill-fated flight in 2003 were meant to be blocked out, to be stored away in an old file. Life is to be lived. The NTSB report says Hatch's plane clipped a utility pole during an emergency descent in Uniondale, Ind., that lights went out in the plane, that young Austin, beside his dad in the passenger seat, tried to help. He held a flashlight to the vertical speed indicator as the tiny aircraft sputtered in the dark Indiana night.

The accident report said inaccurate preflight planning resulted in the plane not having enough fuel. Hatch reportedly disputed that conclusion, believing it was equipment failure that led to the crash.

An obituary in a Fort Wayne paper from eight years ago detailed a family's pain and loss in just several inches of type. It said that Lindsay Hatch was 11 when she died and that she excelled academically and performed in the Fort Wayne Ballet. It said that Ian, 5, loved dinosaurs, airplanes and his dog, Amelia, and that Julie was taken away at 38.

The scars on the ground, at least, are gone. Ditch lilies grow near the old crash site, where County Road 100 West meets County Road 800 and 900 North. There are no signs to mark the spot, but the people in Uniondale know generally where it is. An old lady points to a patch on a long, thin, stretch of road. It's somewhere over there, she says.

Most people in town know what happened June 24, that the little boy in that crash is almost a man now, that he recently committed to Michigan and that, six hours away, in another equally unremarkable spot, his life was ripped apart again.

But the really important question won't be answered in the NTSB's final report: What eventually pulled Stephen Hatch back to the sky? Various people close to the doctor, from his partner at the pain clinic to his fellow pilots at Smith Field to his friends, declined to comment for this story.

Tris Speaker, a former high school gym teacher of Hatch's, told the Saginaw News that the first crash devastated him. But he had to go on. "He talked many, many times after the first one," Speaker told the paper, "and he had to get back on the horse and ride. Obviously, it didn't work out. But that's something he had no power over. That's just fate."

Love and faith

If Kimberly Hatch had any fear of flying, she never mentioned it to her friends. Kim was a devout woman who got down on her knees and prayed for complete strangers, for friends, for anyone who needed it. She carried a tattered old Bible with her just about everywhere. She had three children from a previous marriage, all of whom Hatch adopted, even though one of them was an adult.

[+] EnlargeKim Hatch
Courtesy Jordan BishopKim Hatch went to Joplin, Mo., to help victims of a tornado that ripped through the town in May.

Slender and pretty, she looked much younger than her 44 years. Joplin was just the latest in her volunteer ventures. On Sundays, Kim also served as a mentor to college women. They called her Mama Hatch. She always had a plan, always knew the right things to say. She organized the relief trip to Joplin after watching images of the tornado on TV and had planned to return there once a month.

The night before they left Joplin, Kim hung out at a restaurant with her friend Barb Ballschmidt and they talked for 3½ hours. They stayed up late that night and talked some more, giggling, Ballschmidt says, like schoolgirls. Nothing was left unsaid. Kim talked about death sometimes, but she was devout and unafraid.

She said she was looking forward to the trip to Walloon Lake. She loved those getaways, friends say. The Hatches swam, took long walks and reconnected. They were undeterred, apparently, by history. Stephen and Austin were flying back from their cabin eight years ago when their plane crashed in Uniondale.

"I don't know if she had reservations about [flying]," said Gina Zimmerman, Kim's pedicure buddy. "Her husband basically had invested in a local airfield, and she was so dedicated to him that, even if it meant her death, she would've done it just to support him.

"When they got married, she said to Austin, 'I could never replace your mother, not in a million years. What I'd like to do is provide something in addition to the wonderful person your mother was.'"

She had a way of reaching people. A woman in her Sunday group recently told Kim that she was frustrated and felt depleted in life. Kim compared life to a small plane. Each of us has two gas tanks, she said. When one runs out, you pull the switch and the gas from the other tank runs through you. When it runs out of gas, the plane doesn't really crash, she told the woman. God scoops you up and embraces you.

The woman was so moved by the analogy that she wrote it down. When she heard about the Hatch plane going down in Charlevoix, she explained that Mama Hatch didn't really crash.

"God scooped her up," she said.

In recovery

The updates come at least once a week on Austin's CaringBridge site, and they usually are signed by the Hatch family. Austin's grandparents, great-grandparents, aunts and uncles have been by his side. A recent post said the 16-year-old is as handsome as ever and still looks like a fit teenage athlete. It said he has begun opening his eyes and is undergoing therapy.

[+] EnlargeAustin Hatch
Chad Ryan/The News-SentinelAustin, seen here at an AAU event in May, committed on the spot to Michigan a month later.

"He definitely has a huge support group behind him," says Jake Drapala, a teammate at Canterbury. "It's just amazing to see all the people who really do care about him and love him."

Drapala and his brother Zach wanted to do something for Austin, so they made wristbands. On the front of the blue bands is an inscription: AUSTIN IS MY BROTHER. On the back is a word the basketball team used to say when it broke the huddle: TOGETHER. Austin usually led that chant.

"We're just hoping when he does come back to Fort Wayne that he can look over and see the people wearing the wristbands," Zach says, "and know that, 'Hey, we love you, and it's going to be OK.'"

The people of Fort Wayne believe that. They know Austin is a fighter. They've seen how one 16-year-old can touch so many people. When Scott Helmkamp's son Trevor asks how Hatch is doing, Helmkamp tells him it will take time. Austin isn't going to just jump out of his bed and play basketball, Helmkamp tells his 11-year-old kid.

But they know Austin is still here for a reason. A few years ago, when Austin was in junior high, he befriended Trevor Helmkamp, a shy kid in need of a big brother. Austin took him to play basketball, took time out just to talk to the boy. Last year, Scott wrote Austin a letter thanking him for pulling his son out of his shell. For being Trevor's hero.

Austin sent a letter, which was handwritten, back in the mail. "I couldn't believe this was a teenager writing me a letter," Helmkamp says, "talking about how his purpose in life is to do good for others and to make sure he has a positive impact on everybody he touches."

On July 6, a memorial service for Kim and Stephen Hatch was held at Blackhawk Ministries in Fort Wayne. Helmkamp said there were so many mourners that a parking lot across the street had to be used to accommodate all the cars. Kim's friends made sure the Bible verses she suggested for her funeral were read. She was always the planner. Patients who were touched by Hatch filled the church.

And under the suits and black formal attire were the blue wristbands for Austin. Grown men were wearing them, including some members of Hatch's family, showing what Stephen Hatch knew all along.

Austin will never be alone.

Elizabeth Merrill is a senior writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at merrill2323@hotmail.com. ESPN.com senior college basketball writer Andy Katz and ESPN Enterprise Unit reporter Paula Lavigne contributed to this report.