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Chosen to Live: The Story Behind the Movie FEARLESS…

by Al Siebert, PhD

Author of The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure and Bounce Back From Setbacks (2006 Independent Publisher’s Best Self-Help book), and best seller The Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful at Handling Life’s Difficulties…and How You Can Be, Too.


On July 19, 1989, Jerry Schemmel was a passenger on a United Airlines DC-10 flying from Denver to Chicago. Jerry and his best friend, Jay Ramsdell, had been on standby. They were the last two passengers given seats on the crowded flight. They wanted to sit together, but could not. Jay was given a seat in row 30, Jerry a seat in row 28. When Jerry found his seat, he saw a boy sitting in it. The man next to the boy said he and his eight year-old son had been split up. He asked Jerry to take his son’s assigned seat. Jerry agreed and moved ahead to the boy’s seat in row 23.

A few minutes after takeoff, the rear engine of the plane exploded causing a complete failure of the plane’s steering controls. The pilots, by increasing and decreasing power in the plane’s two huge wing engines, managed to nurse the crippled plane with its 296 passengers through a series of slow right turns to Sioux City, Iowa, the nearest airport. The plane slammed into the runway at full speed and shattered apart. Large sections caught fire as they skidded and tumbled into an adjacent cornfield.

Jerry describes what happened when the plane smashed into the ground as "raw chaos." A fireball shot through the cabin from front to back. Many of the seats next to Jerry ripped were ripped out of their floor fastenings and hurled forward, but his held. Back of him, the plane split apart killing Jay and others in the rows where Jerry was supposed to be sitting. 112 people died in the crash.

Jerry’s section of the plane was upside down. He unbuckled himself and let himself down into what had been the roof of the cabin. He struggled over to an opening and helped everyone else out of the burning section before he got out.

As he started to walk away from the plane, he thought he heard a baby cry. He went back inside and walked cautiously through the acrid smoke. He heard the cry again, underfoot. He lifted up the debris and discovered a baby that had been thrown into an overhead bin during the tumultuous crash. He placed to the baby inside his sport coat jacket to help protect its lungs from the smoke and climbed outside with it. Some distance from the plane he saw some survivors huddled together. He handed the baby to a young woman and walked on toward the emergency vehicles.

Jerry took the next available flight back to his home in Denver. He was surprised to see news broadcasts about the mysterious hero who rescued the baby. He was identified by airline officials, but refused all media interviews.

Jerry was startled when the movie Fearless came out and he saw his story reenacted by the character played by Jeff Bridges. Jerry decided not to sue, he was still struggling with the pain of many memories.

I met Jerry when we were both on an OPRAH show about survivors in 1997. Jerry said it took him over seven years to work through why he lived, while his best friend and so many others had died. He has written an account of his story and his struggle to regain a life for himself in Chosen to Live, (Victory Publishing Company, 1996.) The title of the first chapter in his book, by-the-way, is "I was Never Fearless."

Jerry has worked as an announcer for the Denver Nuggets basketball team for many years. He now speaks to many Christian groups about how, for him, accepting Christ into his life is how he recovered from his severe PTSD.


The Resiliency Center was founded by the late Al Siebert, PhD who studied highly resilient survivors for over fifty years. He authored the award-winning book The Resiliency Advantage: Master Change, Thrive Under Pressure and Bounce Back From Setbacks (2006 Independent Publisher’s Best Self-Help book), and best seller The Survivor Personality: Why Some People Are Stronger, Smarter, and More Skillful at Handling Life’s Difficulties…and How You Can Be, Too.