By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneDecember 3, 2009
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- There\'s an old saying that "dead men don't talk." But this is a story about a dead man who did plenty of talking -- and living and breathing - after a car crash that became the impetus for his bestselling book "90 Minutes In Heaven - A True Story of Death and Life." Don Piper is, indeed, a walking miracle, even if some may find it hard to believe he actually went to heaven after a car crash with an 18-wheeler and then returned to life to share his story. That accident crushed nearly every bone in Piper's body, severed two of his limbs and caused emergency personnel to pronounce him dead at the scene. He shared his story with an audience of more than 100 at Redstone Arsenal's Bicentennial Chapel on Nov. 17. "I believe God answers prayers. I believe God is in the miracle business," Piper said. "I'm standing here at Redstone Arsenal because a lot of people prayed and God said 'Yes.' "Sometimes God says 'No.' Sometimes he says 'Maybe.' Sometimes he gives us more than we ask for. But no matter what, He wants to hear from us and that's what prayer is. Prayer is not just asking for stuff. It's about talking to God. God wants to hear from his children." Piper's story is riveting, curious, inspiring and, downright, heavenly. Piper, who grew up in a military family, captivated the Bicentennial Chapel audience as he recounted his experience of that fateful day in January 1989. "An 18-wheeler hit me head on," he recalled. "It was a horrendous collision. The wheels rolled over my car. We were in an isolated area of fishing camps and retreat centers. It took awhile for emergency personnel to get there. The driver of the truck and the drivers of the two other cars in the collision were unharmed. "Four ambulances arrived on the scene. They did everything. They tried to resuscitate me. They didn't succeed. I was pronounced dead. They covered my body with a tarp. It was a gruesome scene." The accident happened as Piper, a Baptist minister, traveled home from a pastor's retreat in his home state of Texas. Behind the collision, cars driven by other ministers started backing up. One of those ministers - Dick Onrecker - was compelled to pray for the "man in the red car." Onrecker, who had served in Vietnam as a medic, went to the crash scene and asked a police officer "Is there anyone to pray for'" His efforts to get to the "man in the red car" were initially rebuffed. "God was speaking that day and the pastor was listening," Piper said. "God told him to 'Pray for the man in the red car.' He didn't say 'Pray for a dead man.' He asked again about the man in the red car and the policeman said 'That man didn't make it. He's dead. It's grotesque. It's a blood bath under that tarp.'" Onrecker persisted, telling the officer "I have to get in the car and pray for this guy because God told me to do it," Piper said. Finally, with permission to get under the tarp, Onrecker saw the scene for himself. Piper's left arm was severed and laying in the back seat of the car, his left leg was barely attached and his body was impaled on the steering wheel. Only Piper's right arm was not broken. Onrecker put his hand on Piper's right shoulder from the back, and started praying. In the meantime, other ministers in the traffic jam behind the accident began praying. Piper's family was notified that he had been in a car accident. They started praying, as well as his home church in Houston. As news of the accident spread, Christians in churches throughout Houston, Texas and the South prayed for Piper. "Thousands and thousands were praying for me," he said. But Piper wasn't aware of those prayers. Instead, he was at the gate of heaven, seeing long lost loved ones and others who had encouraged him along his Christian path during their life on earth. He saw angels, and the heavenly city with magnificent structures and a golden street. He heard music sung in a language he had never heard before. Everywhere he looked, he saw beauty, he saw perfection. "I didn't know they were all praying for me," he said of Onrecker and others on earth. "If I had known, I would have told them to stop. If you've been there, you don't want to be here." But the prayers prevailed. Onrecker began singing "What A Friend We Have In Jesus." To his shock, the "dead man" began to sing with him. For Piper, in that instant, the beauty of heaven stopped. His only memory is of being in total darkness, with Onrecker's song penetrating his consciousness. "Ninety minutes after the big truck hit me, there under the tarp in the dark, as he's singing the song, I start singing the song with him," Piper said. "He jumped out from under the tarp and said something ridiculous. He said 'The dead man is singing.'" It took Onrecker several tries to get authorities to believe what he was saying. He finally was able to convince them to check on Piper and they discovered a man who was barely alive. Emergency personnel then had to tear the car apart and take its roof off to get Piper out of the mangled mess. At a hospital 35 miles away, he was found to have brain damage and grave internal injuries that could cause him to be in a vegetative state for the rest of his life. Then he was transported to a trauma center in Houston 85 miles away. Further tests found no brain damage and less severe internal injuries. But the injuries Piper did have kept him in the hospital for 13 months, where countless surgeries and procedures were required to put his body back together again. "It was a long dark time of life and death, life and death. It was a nightmarish existence for a long, long time. It was a dark experience, a difficult time. It was extremely painful," he said. But, because of that suffering, Piper can now counsel others who have been through horrific experiences. Among those he has ministered to are wounded Soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and the relatives of Soldiers who have died. Recovery is about "finding a new normal. It's not bitter or better, but different," he said. "My question to God was 'What are you trying to teach me through this'' God answered that question through music. He told me I would spend the rest of my life getting over this by helping others get over things like this, by helping others turn mess into message, by helping others turn test into testimony ... I want to spend the rest of my life helping people through difficult times." He made it through the accident and 13 months in the hospital so he can share God's promise of heaven. "Why did God bring me back' So I could be at Redstone Arsenal and tell you to your face that heaven is real," Piper said. "It's real. More than this ever will be. As wonderful and gorgeous earth is, this won't always be here and neither will you." Piper looks forward to the day when he will be in heaven, greeting others he has helped along their Christian path. "Who will you greet' Who will be there because you helped them get there' Bring them to church. Tell them about being a Christian. Live a faithful life in front of them so they know who a Christian is," Piper encouraged his audience.