Simon Pearce faced his worst fear when he ran inside a burning airplane to save a stranger.
The pilot had long worried it would be he who died trapped inside a fiery aircraft. Instead, Mr. Pearce ran through smoke to pull Carolyn Cross from the flaming wreckage near Vancouver International Airport last week.
Ms. Cross calls him a hero but Mr. Pearce insists he did nothing special and is haunted by the fact he wasn't able to reach the Beechcraft King Air 100's two pilots. Mr. Pearce and Ms. Cross were reunited this week and formed a kinship – what she calls an "instant family."
"It's an immediate intimacy that lasts a lifetime," Ms. Cross said in an interview. "He's now part of my life and I'm part of his and that's the journey we're on."
That journey began when Mr. Pearce and his wife Kim were driving near the airport Oct. 27. A Kelowna-bound aircraft carrying seven passengers veered toward the busy stretch of road and crash-landed 50 metres away from them.
Mr. Pearce, a 33-year-old father of one, immediately sprung into action.
"I remember running straight to the plane," he said. He briefly paused to assess the situation, then: "I can picture the door coming open. I can picture two guys coming out of it. And then number three is a woman lying there, head out, legs still inside. My picture I have in my head is going forward and extending a hand to her."
Mr. Pearce says there are blank spots in his memory. He's reluctant to take credit and says someone else must have helped him pull Ms. Cross from the plane.
She has no qualms about lavishing him with praise.
"He saw me lying inside, desperately trying to move and get out. He reached in and lifted me," Ms. Cross said. "He carried me to the edge and then he remained with me."
Ms. Cross, chief executive officer of Ondine Biomedical, suffered broken ribs, fractures in her spine and hip, and punctures in her head. She also lost a few teeth and remains in hospital.
Ms. Cross, who sent her three children goodbye text messages as the plane was going down, was speaking with the Transportation Safety Board about the accident when Mr. Pearce's name came up. She jumped at the chance to call him.
"When she called me, I lost it and was shaking and crying. I don't know why that was. I don't know if I was starting to relive it," Mr. Pearce said.
They agreed to meet. Ms. Cross was in her hospital room Wednesday when Mr. Pearce and his wife walked in. Both Ms. Cross and her rescuer immediately burst into tears and held hands for the duration of the visit.
"He gives me a big hug," she said. "He's trembling almost uncontrollably. We had a good cry together. I just felt joy and love."
Added Mr. Pearce: "The second we walked in the room and I was able to see her, it was almost an instant calm. The way to describe it is seeing family."
Ms. Cross said meeting with Mr. Pearce not only gave her an opportunity to thank him profusely, but also a chance to try and help her saviour. She said Mr. Pearce has gone through deep sadness, disappointment, and guilt because he wasn't able to reach the aircraft's pilots. One of them died, while the other remains in critical condition. All of the passengers survived.
Mr. Pearce, who flies for Transport Canada, said it was extremely difficult to watch flames enter the cockpit.
"I had to turn away," he said, his voice going quiet.
When asked what she said to him about not being able to help the pilots, Ms. Cross said: "I told him that wasn't his role. His role was to take care of me and he did that brilliantly."
Immediately after the crash, Mr. Pearce thought he was done with flying. There are still issues to work through, he admits, but he has since headed back to the skies.
"The first flight was nerve-wracking, almost like doing it all over from scratch," he said. "But I do love to fly."
He's adamant he's not a hero. Mr. Pearce says he only came forward at the request of Ms. Cross, who said he should be recognized.
"I'm an everyday person who did what I hope everyone would do in that case," he said.