July 30, 2010

'God gave me a second chance': Firefighter’s faith burns brighter after surviving near-fatal motorcycle crash

After a close call with death in a motorcycle accident, Indianapolis firefighter Jake Carpenter has transformed his life by making a deeper commitment to his faith and showing more compassion to people in need. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

After a close call with death in a motorcycle accident, Indianapolis firefighter Jake Carpenter has transformed his life by making a deeper commitment to his faith and showing more compassion to people in need. (Photo by John Shaughnessy)

By John Shaughnessy

The horrifying moment shapes everything for Jake Carpenter.

It’s the moment when he came to the brink of death, the moment that transformed his life.

It stays with the 34-year-old Indianapolis firefighter when he battles a house fire or rushes to an emergency where a person’s life hangs in the balance.

It also influences him as he volunteers to help the poor and other people in need, focusing on them with a warm approach that both welcomes others and hints that he has been through his own tough times.

“God gave me another chance at life,” says Carpenter, a member of St. Susanna Parish in Plainfield.

Then he begins the story of the summer day that changed everything, the summer day when he and a friend roared their motorcycles along an interstate highway after a visit to Kings Island, an amusement park near Cincinnati, Ohio.

‘We didn’t know if we would lose him’

It was Aug. 21, 2003—part of a period in Carpenter’s life when he says that he was focused on material things. At the time, that he was in his second year with the Indianapolis Fire Department and also worked security jobs during his off-hours.

Single, he earned enough money to have a motorcycle, a Jeep Grand Cherokee, a sailboat and a nice condo.

During that time, Carpenter usually wore a helmet when he rode his motorcycle, but he didn’t on the return trip from Cincinnati.

Crossing into Indiana, he and his friend, Andy Dodd, had decided to get off the interstate and take the scenic route home when Carpenter lost control of his motorcycle on the interstate exit. As the bike skidded on gravel, his head slammed into a guardrail. He was lifeless when Dodd found him.

In the frantic minutes that followed, Carpenter was rushed by helicopter to University Hospital in Cincinnati. His parents, Kay and Calvin Carpenter, were contacted. Overwhelmed by fear for their son, the couple began the excruciating, two-hour trip to the hospital.

About the same time, a doctor at the hospital approached Dodd and told him to come and say goodbye to Carpenter. He was barely holding on to life when his parents arrived at the hospital and rushed to his side.

The swelling in Carpenter’s brain was so extensive that the doctors had to remove a large part of his skull to relieve the pressure.

“We didn’t know if we would lose him,” says Kay Carpenter, a member of St. Thomas More Parish in Mooresville. “He was in a coma. We asked people to pray that God’s will be done, whatever he saw fit. We have an adoration chapel at St. Thomas, and people were praying there for him. When I would wake up at two or three in the morning, I’d think of the people praying in the chapel.”

Family and friends held a vigil at the hospital. Some of them were friends from the Indianapolis Police Department, where Carpenter worked for two years before deciding to become a firefighter. Others were his friends from the fire department.

“Thinking of all those people and their love felt like a patchwork quilt on my shoulders,” Kay Carpenter recalls.

Ten days after the accident, Carpenter came out of the coma. His dad was there by his side.

“God had his hand in it,” Kay Carpenter says. “God protected him. You could feel it.”

A life transformed

The recovery was a slow one for Carpenter, but he made it with the help of his family and friends. His physical healing was a prelude to the spiritual transformation that he experienced after the accident.

“After my accident, I sold everything I had,” Carpenter says. “I knew it was a new chapter in my life. I could have been dead. I could have been easily paralyzed. I knew God gave me a second chance, and he started opening doors.”

He began attending Sunday Mass regularly, embracing the celebration instead of viewing it as an obligation as he had when he went on-and-off to church in the past.

His prayer life is stronger, and he volunteers for the St. Vincent de Paul Society, helping to serve people in need. When a fellow firefighter told him about a grassroots organization called Helping Hand that gives food and clothes to the poor, Carpenter decided to join that effort, too.

“He’s always willing to help,” says Tim Hahn, the founder of Helping Hand. “Jake will call ahead and ask what we need. I’ll tell him, and he brings more than we ask for. He just really wants to help.”

Carpenter says his life is much better since he started focusing on others.

“You know you can make a difference,” he says. “If I give bread to someone and then another person, maybe they’ll do something for somebody else. And then it might snowball. Obviously, you can’t help everybody, but if you can help one or two people and see them smile, that completes the day right there.”

Embracing God’s terms

The transformation has influenced his approach as a firefighter, too. He serves at Station 5 at 16th Street and Capitol Avenue, a station in the midst of a struggling, low-income area in Indianapolis. He considers himself to be more compassionate to the people he meets than he was before the accident.

His mother sees the difference, too.

“He’s the same person, but he’s blossomed and matured,” she says. “I know it’s God working in him. Before the accident, he was into material things. Since the accident, he’s more into helping others. We’ve all realized how fragile life is. We’ve realized we’re here to serve God and help others.”

As she talks, the emotion of recalling the accident and its aftermath begins to overwhelm her. Her voice chokes with her tears when she says, “I have my son. I have been blessed because God granted him to come back to us. He came back to us on God’s terms.”

Carpenter has embraced those terms. He also savors each new day as a new blessing.

“Every day, I say, ‘Thank you, God, thank you,’ ” he says. “I look back on what happened, and I’m thankful for my life. I don’t have all the things I had before the accident, but I have more now. It’s a beautiful life.” †

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