Circle of service

  • Written by Jean Parietti
  • Published in NW Stories
Mike Hemmer. Photo: Stephen Brashear Mike Hemmer. Photo: Stephen Brashear

Near-tragedy taught Mike Hemmer how to receive as well as give

Under the scorching Tijuana sun, Mike Hemmer stood atop a concrete house, helping his parish’s Mission Trek team work on a second-story addition.

Problem is, Hemmer wasn’t supposed to be up on the roof.

The plane-crash survivor, who underwent 16 surgeries for his injuries, had lingering mobility issues — including a hip held together with hardware and one leg a half-inch shorter than the other.

Three years after the 2009 crash, Hemmer felt lucky to be in Tijuana for the first time with the group that included his older daughter, Jennifer; son Eric; and good friend Maryelyn Scholz, then youth minister at their parish, St. Vincent de Paul in Federal Way.

“All three of us were commissioned [by Hemmer’s wife, Shirley] to make sure Mike didn’t do anything stupid,” Scholz said.

But despite their watchful eyes, there he was, up on that roof, helping where help was needed. After Scholz chewed him out, they had to figure out how he was going to descend the ladder. “I think it took three kids to get him down,” Scholz said. “It’s a really good lesson in desire and drive.”

Hemmer had been apprehensive about handling the Tijuana trip physically, but was determined to be part of it. It was rewarding when he could keep up and contribute. “We’d been receiving so much help in that time,” he said. “It felt good to finally give back a little bit.”

Miracles amid tragedy

The Hemmer family’s time of need began on Ash Wednesday 2009. Hemmer, a Boeing manager, was heading home from a business trip to Turkey, ready to help the family celebrate Jennifer’s 18th birthday later that day. But his Boeing 737 crashed about a mile short of the runway in Amsterdam and broke into three pieces.

Hemmer’s three Boeing colleagues, sitting nearby, were among the nine people killed in the crash. Hemmer suffered critical injuries, including a shattered upper left arm, a compound fracture in his right forearm, broken bones in both legs, a broken nose, a fractured eye socket and two crushed wisdom teeth.

A medic on the scene knew that Hemmer’s life depended on being directly airlifted from the crash site. His survival was “truly a miracle,” Shirley Hemmer said. “The other miracle is that he had no internal injuries, no spinal injuries and no brain injuries.”

After nearly five weeks, Hemmer was well enough to be transferred from Amsterdam to St. Francis Hospital in Federal Way, where he spent three more weeks recuperating before returning home. In all, it was six months before he could start returning to work part time.

Shirley was “the absolute rock that’s kept the family together, that kept me together,” Hemmer said. “She’s so much stronger than she thought she could be.”

Humbled by service

That medic in Amsterdam was just one of many earthly angels who helped the Hemmers through those challenging months. While Shirley was in Amsterdam with Mike, friends and family members stayed with their three kids, Jennifer, Eric and Abby. People all over the Puget Sound area prayed for Hemmer’s recovery. And scores of people — fellow parishioners, Boeing workers, neighbors, friends and Boy Scouts — made meals, cleaned house, did laundry and took care of the Hemmers’ yard throughout the spring and summer, efforts organized through the nonprofit organization Gloria’s Angels.

“The outpouring of care and love that we’ve been shown is just truly overwhelming,” Hemmer said a year later. “I see that as a sign of everyone else’s faith.”

Mike and Shirley had always found it easy to help others in need; it was harder learning how to receive help.

“It’s tough when the game changes,” Hemmer said. “It was up to us to say, ‘Yes, we’ll accept your help.’ That’s what has to happen for people to be able to help us.

“It’s very humbling,” he said, “but it’s part of the circle.”

Mike Hemmer doing Mission Trek service workMike Hemmer, left, and high school senior Sabastian Nelson work on a service project with other members of the Mission Trek group from St. Vincent de Paul Parish in Federal Way. Photo: Courtsey Mike Hemmer

Embedded with faith

Hemmer’s faith, positive personality and sense of humor helped him through the initial months of recovery, as well as a second round of surgeries needed more than a year later to replace the hardware in his hip and to battle infections.

Although Hemmer has no memory of the crash, he recalls a priest anointing him in an Amsterdam hospital a few days afterward. “I remember just kind of an overwhelming feeling of wow, this is for me,” he said. “It was powerful.”

Hemmer’s faith has always been strong, “embedded” by his parents, Lawrence and Dorothy, while growing up on the family’s wheat ranch in tiny Galata, Montana. Even with the work the ranch required, the Hemmers went to Mass every Sunday, driving 25–30 miles to church. For confession, they drove 110 miles to the “big city,” Great Falls, “because Mom knew the priest didn’t know her there,” Hemmer said with a laugh.

But he didn’t experience the fullness of parish life until he and Shirley started attending St. Vincent de Paul Parish in 1988. “That was one of the things we fell in love with at St. Vincent’s,” Hemmer said. “It’s such a family and a community feeling.”

He joined the Knights of Columbus and Shirley became involved with the Mothers and Others group while their kids were young. When Jennifer was in seventh grade, Mike became an adult leader for Mission Trek, the parish’s yearlong service programs for middle school and high school students.

Today, Hemmer is also an extraordinary minister of holy Communion, sits on the archdiocesan school board and continues his long-standing work through the Knights at Nativity House, the Catholic Community Services homeless shelter in Tacoma.

Continuing the circle

Six years after the crash, it’s not unusual for someone in the parish to ask for prayers and tell Hemmer he’s evidence that prayer works. “It’s something that we all know and believe,” Hemmer said, “but when it’s reinforced, it makes a statement.”

He prays more now than he did before the accident. “It’s not necessarily on my knees in prayer. I find myself just talking to God an awful lot,” Hemmer said. “It seems like I’m doing a lot of thanking. Maybe it’s because I’m doing a lot of asking, too.”

Hemmer’s mother, who died in 2012, was known for her lengthy prayer list. “We used to always joke that my mom would pray for everything. If the kids had a big test or anything, we’d call Grandma and she’d put it on the prayer list.”

That list-keeping seems to have passed to her son. “I pray for everything,” Hemmer said.

Now he’s getting ready to make his fourth Mission Trek trip to Tijuana this summer, excited that Shirley is going with the parish group for the first time.

The only stumbling block could be the recent news that Hemmer needs a complete hip replacement, likely to require two major surgeries over six months. “I’m OK with it,” he said. “It’s another setback, but I’ll come out of it better.”

Hemmer hopes he can delay the surgery until after the Tijuana trip — Mission Trek is that important to him.

“I don’t know if it’s really a calling, but it’s something that just feels like I need to do it,” he said. “Although when I get there, after schlepping my bag across the border and sleeping in a really hot room after working hard all day, I think, ‘Well, why am I doing this?’” he said, laughing. “It’s just something I enjoy, that gives me some fulfillment.”

In recent years, Hemmer has become the leader of Esperanza, the Tijuana trip, said Jeff Markwith, St. Vincent’s assistant youth minister and Mission Trek coordinator. “The kids know that he cares and they feel very safe with him,” Markwith said. “He doesn’t want anything to intrude on these kids’ time of learning how to serve others and serve Jesus. He’s modeling for us adults, too, because he never loses faith.”

Hemmer is partly driven by the desire to help the kids make service a part of their lives, just as he has.

“I always tell them … I’m here for you guys, but the real reason I’m here is purely selfish,” he said, “because it just makes me feel good to be able to help you.” 

Northwest Catholic - May 2015