In March 1985 I was travelling to Damascus, Syria, in a bus from Aleppo, about a four hour journey south on the main highway. My wife and daughter were at home in Aleppo — we lived in Syria from 1984-86 while I completed a postdoc at an international agricultural research centre. The first hour and a half was uneventful, just the “typical crazy” traffic in the Middle East we experienced as a family when travelling in Syria and Jordan.
Suddenly we came upon Syrian military trucks on the highway, going rather slowly. Our driver, not wanting to slow down, started flashing his lights, leaned on his horn, and moved over to the opposing lane of traffic. We were going at least 100 km per hour, with all the oncoming traffic forced over to the shoulder of the road. I had a “bad feeling” about this and felt it was quite dangerous, but everyone else in the bus was quite calm or sleeping.
I looked out my window and could see that we were passing the military trucks. Then I looked ahead, and noticed a bend in the highway with a bridge. Suddenly, there was a bus coming around the bend, with no shoulder on the highway. This was all happening at over 100 km an hour — a head-on collision was imminent. The driver of the other bus cleared the bend and then panicked by turning his steering wheel sharply to make a right turn hoping to avoid us. I can still see the mortified expression on his face to this day. Unfortunately, at such a high speed, vehicles tend to flip over due to the forward momentum. The bus flipped in the air perpendicular to our bus, hit the pavement and the fuel tank instantly exploded. All that I could see in front me was a wall of fire, and I was going into it head-on! At this point, many people in the bus were screaming as they could see the impending disaster. I was certain that I only had about ten or less seconds to live. What else does one conclude when going over 100 km an hour into a wall of fire?
What does one think when faced with imminent death? For me, at least, I thought about what was most important to me in all the world – my dear wife and little daughter. Never mind professional accomplishments, wealth or whatever – family and loved ones are most important by far. Serious situations have a habit of simplifying life. I felt sad that my wife would have to continue life without me, but far sadder still that I could not be a father to my little girl – she would grow up without me. I had only been her father for just over a year and enjoyed every moment with her. Honestly, I didn’t expect that my life would end so soon – but you don’t know how many years you have in this life. With impending death, I prayed for my family and for Jesus to receive me into His presence. I had already been a Christian for 12 years, so the issue of eternal destiny was settled.
I then instinctively went into the “brace” position, with my hands over my head, leaning forward into the back of the seat ahead of me. I knew that in seconds the collision would occur. Miraculously, I felt no fear or panic at all, just total peace. Actually, it seemed like I was at the IMAX theatre watching this all unfold in a movie. The unmistakable presence of God was so evident, so strong. I could not see Jesus, but felt He was there. It seemed like I was at the edge of heaven. This was all like a wall of protection because to this day I have never felt the need for healing prayer surrounding the accident. This was a very traumatic event, which for many people could well cause PTSD.
At the last few seconds, our bus driver veered slightly to the right since we had just passed the last military truck. Upon impact, our bus rocked a bit to the right, then steadied itself, not falling on its side which always causes more deaths and injuries. I was in the seventh row, near the front of the bus, and almost everyone ahead of me was bleeding and injured. Everyone in the other bus, which had exploded into flames, had died. That bus was like an empty burned out shell — the photo above is an example of what I remember. I could smell death. I could see a few arms protruding from the bus’ windows, and to my surprise, the local people were taking the watches off the wrists of dead people. A few minutes later, the accident scene was sealed off by Syrian soldiers.
I was so thankful to still be alive! My only “injury” was small pieces of glass that had impacted into my head from the collision and came out gradually over the months as I combed my hair. While bracing for the collision, I had let go of my portfolio which had my passport and airline tickets. It was lost in the impact, but I would need it to catch my flight from Damascus to Frankfurt. Amidst the chaos and wounded people in front of me, I went to the front of the bus and found my portfolio wedged in behind the driver’s seat. The driver was in pain, it looked like his legs were crushed.
I was able to exit the bus along with many others. The accident happened early evening, so it was quite cool that night and I was starting to shiver while standing on the highway with other passengers. I ended up talking in German to a fellow passenger, a man from East Germany. He informed me that another bus was on the way and there was a frantic search for the driver’s key to the luggage compartment so that we could get our luggage. When the key was found, there was quite an eruption in Arabic and I soon had my luggage. An ambulance arrived from Homs about 45 minutes after the accident, even though Homs was only twenty minutes away. I’m sure that some people had died in the meantime, it was indeed a night that I will never forget.
The replacement bus came about 15 minutes after the ambulance, and I was soon in Homs at a bus stop. This stop was quite primitive – a simple café with some Arabic toilets in the back. I went into one of the toilets, and encountered the “squatty” with a hose. It was quite filthy, but since my portfolio was caked with dried blood, I ran some water over it to clean it off as much as I could. I still have that portfolio – I keep it as a reminder of a night that I survived only by God’s grace and protection.
We arrived in Damascus almost two hours later, but my connection time with my Pakistani International Airlines flight was four hours, so I made my flight to Frankfurt. My final destination was the University of California, Irvine, to interview for an assistant professorship. I never did get the faculty appointment even though I was on the short list, and getting there had almost cost me my life.
The promise of eternal life is real (John 5:24; Romans 6:23; 1 Peter 1:9) – this is not just some theological concept for debate. I had little warning the accident was coming, much less any time to prepare. But thankfully, when I REALLY needed it, God’s incredible peace was all around me and within me. How else can you remain calm when you are sure you are about to die, while others around you are screaming? Sadly, they did not have the hope of eternal life nor the assurance of salvation as I did. It is not about me being braver than them, or any such silly notion, but simply that I belong to Jesus and I am a child of the King (John 1:12). I have studied apologetics and debated atheists, but I also know that some atheists tend to “change their mind” when faced with the personal issues of life and death.