MARSHALL - Texas minister Don Piper reportedly died on Jan. 18, 1989, when an 18-wheel truck struck his Ford Escort head-on while crossing a bridge. He was pronounced dead by four sets of paramedics. But 90 minutes later, with a tarp covering his broken body and a fellow pastor praying over him, Piper returned from what he calls "the gates of heaven."
After enduring 13 months of hospitalizations, 34 major surgeries, including some that have never been attempted in the United States before, and years of agonizing therapy and rehabilitation, Piper now shares his experience and message of hope and healing with others.
"It's probably the last thing I wanted to do," Piper said about talking about his experience. "At first, I wrote the book so I wouldn't have to talk about it anymore."
But through a friend, Piper came to realize that his experience meant more than that.
"I kept the heaven thing to myself until I let it slip with a trusted friend," Piper said. "His response was, 'why do you think you experienced this if you were supposed to keep it secret?' That spiraled the need to tell."
We all have painful things in our lives, Piper said, such as tragedies and loss.
"You can't ever forget about them, but the natural thing you'd like to do is turn the page," he said. "But then there's the notion of helping other people. Most people really want someone to hold our hand and tell us how to get through it."
Piper will reflect on his near-death experience at the Marshall Area Christian School's 5th Annual Promise Banquet tonight at Southwest Minnesota State University. The event, which is the largest fundraiser for MACS, is sold out.
"We have a bigger turnout than we even had for Kirk Cameron," said Leslie Hart, Banquet committee member. "The most we can seat for the meal is 620 and we are beyond that. We have a waiting list. It's great for the school."
Piper first chronicled his experience in "90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life," which was released in 2004 and quickly became a New York Times best seller. Since then, Piper has sold more than 5 million copies of the book in 40 languages. According to the Don Piper Ministries website, he has also "mesmerized and inspired nearly 3,000 audiences around the globe" with his incredible lessons of "answered prayer, miracles, overcoming tragedy, pain and loss and the reality of heaven."
"Don Piper has such a great ministry and message for everybody," said Tim Gross, MACS fundraising chairman. "It's been really cool, the response we've gotten."
Piper, an ordained Baptist minister since 1984, had been on his way back home after attending an annual statewide church conference in 1989 when he was crushed inside his small vehicle.
"In one powerful, overwhelming second, I died," Piper said in his book.
Though EMTs had revealed that Piper had been killed on impact, Dick Onarecker, a pastor who was at the same church conference as Piper and came up on the scene soon afterward, felt compelled to pray over Piper's body anyway.
During the time he was dead, Piper insists he was "granted the extreme privilege of glimpsing heaven itself." According to Piper, he went straight to heaven and experienced beautiful and amazing things, including meeting family members and other people with whom he was familiar with.
"There is a better place," he said. "For those who have lost a husband or had a child killed in a tragic accident, they're just trying to figure out how to live another day. You have to fight for it sometimes. Otherwise, you end up being paralyzed in every way possible - emotionally, physically and spiritually."
The first thing Piper remembers after the crash is the voice of a man. Then, he heard himself singing too.
"Immediately, I heard the voice of the man who was making me sing the song," Piper said. "I didn't know why I was in the dark and I didn't know why I was singing the song. But I was under a tarp and (Onarecker) was trying to keep me conscious."
In spite of the physical pain the crash left him in, Piper continues to channel inspirational messages by reaching out to others. His unique journey is one of faith, and it's one countless people seem to find a connection with.
"I was given virtually no chance at a meaningful life," Piper said. "I'll walk in to speak to people, and I'll walk out afterwards on two legs that they said would never work. People draw inspiration from that."