With deep and sincere love for one another, Scott Humpal and his family turn tragedy into empowerment.
By: Paul Romans
Photos by: William Russell
Approaching the home to meet with Scott Humpal and his family, I saw some unusual lights in the distance on the far side of the driveway behind the ranch-style house. After I got out of the truck and walked around back, it made perfect sense. Sophomore tennis sensation and state champ, Sara Humpal, was still hard at it hitting serves with her coach. Upon noticing me, she stopped what she was doing and jogged over to greet me. “Hi, you must be the interviewer,” she said. “Let me take you to my dad.”
In meeting Scott, Dillon and Sara, one can’t help but feel the affinity they have for each other. Their love is deep and sincere. They seem to know exactly what each other is thinking almost in unison. They end each other’s sentences and fill in missing moments when necessary. Their positive energy is quite infectious. Scott tells me later that sometimes when he watches the kids play sports, he is so grateful that they are healthy enough to enjoy sports and lead a normal life. He also feels they are far more emotionally strong than he is.
Dillon Humpal is a well-mannered, handsome young man. He exudes confidence and intelligence well beyond his years. He has won the state championship in tennis three times. He won once in Division 1A, as a freshman defeating the defending state champion at regionals in a playback match just to make it to state. He lost in the regional final match badly, being defeated 6-0, 6-1 by very good lefty.
Dillon had about three weeks to prepare for the state tournament. He really didn’t have huge expectations, but he did want to see just how far he could advance. He played impressively for being much younger than his opponents. He made the final and was matched up with the same player who would beat him so badly at regionals. This time, though, he was much better prepared for this opponent.
He triumphed against overwhelming odds. The crowd was against him, and he was facing the favorite. He lost the first set and was behind in the second set. It was match point as his competitor raced toward the net after his volley. Dillon became nervous and lobbed his return, which appeared long. His adversary merely waited for it to go out, but a divine wind placed it in bounds and Dillon would go on to win the set. He was down 8 match points, but he persevered. It was the longest state finals match in Texas history. Dillon would go on to win two more state championships in Division 2A, and he will have the opportunity to win a fourth state championship in Division 3A this year.
Sara is an accomplished athlete in her own right. She not only has her mother’s beauty, she also shares Gaby Humpal’s competitive spirit when it comes to tennis. She excels at volleyball, too, but tennis is her true passion. Sara started playing tennis shortly after she learned to walk. Since this early age, her mom would be on the court with her, bouncing balls so she could hit them over the net.
Scott says Gaby was always stirring their competitive nature. If there was time enough to play, they could be seen outside hitting tennis balls. This practice would pay off because last year, Sara won the State 2A Tennis Title for London. The Humpals pulled off a rare feat with brother and sister winning singles titles in the same year.
The Humpal family often took annual trips to Steamboat Springs, Colo. They had been going there since Dillon was 5 years old. One of Sara’s memories was falling down on the black diamond trail that she wasn’t supposed to be on, and recovering in a pile of snow. Dillon recalls taking the gondola to the halfway point in the middle of a heavy snowstorm with his older brother, Tad. They decided to take the road less traveled. The snow was thick, and they could barely move, so what usually would take about five minutes to get down ended up taking them 25 minutes.
Steamboat Springs was always a place of fun and memorable experiences for the Humpal family. However, when they traveled there in February 2012, the trip would be most memorable, but not of that which any family would want to endure.
During their flight in on a small charter plane, they stopped in Dalhart to refuel. The pilot told them they would arrive at the airport just ahead of a storm front. They had to circle in the clouds over the airport a couple of times waiting on planes to take off. Scott started experiencing a little anxiety. The plane popped out of the clouds and was on the approach to the runway. The weather was clear. They were hit with a windshear that drove the plane straight up right before they crashed less than a hundred yards away from the runway. The media made a big deal about their landing in the middle of a snowstorm, but that was not true.
When they gained consciousness, Dillon was behind Scott, Sara was in Gaby’s lap and Tad was up in the windshield of the plane. Their pilot was dead. Scott moved Sara and performed CPR on Gaby. Dillon called 911 while Scott was giving CPR to Gaby. Dillon handed the phone to Scott, and he told the dispatcher they had crashed short of the runway in Hayden; she didn’t believe him initially because no reports of a plane crash had been reported yet. The dispatcher said she would send the first responders. Tad finally got out of the plane and ran to the fire truck via the emergency exit.
The family had to wait a while on the paramedics because they had to park on the tarmac and walk through the snow in order to get to the wreckage. Scott performed CPR on his wife until EMS showed up. Dillon and Sara were sent out to the wing of the plane. At this time, Scott didn’t know Sara had a T-6 fracture of the spine. The bone was shattered in six or seven pieces, and a huge piece of the bone had broken off in her spinal canal. The move she made from the inside of the plane to the wing while waiting could have left her paralyzed. She was lucky.
The EMS transported the injured in two separate ambulances to the Yampa Valley Hospital (YVMC) in Steamboat Springs. Tad and Sara were in one, and Scott and Dillon in the other, all of them enduring a bumpy, 45-minute ride before arriving at the hospital. Scott was of the impression that Gaby had possibly passed away. He would not see Sara again for more than two days.
Sara was later transported to the Children’s Hospital in Denver. She was listed in critical condition and would undergo several surgeries to fix fractures and damaged muscles from compression syndrome in her leg. Her lungs had also collapsed, and she had a subdural hematoma (a type of hematoma usually associated with traumatic brain injury; blood gathers between the dura mater and the brain), a lacerated kidney and liver, a broken collarbone, a broken neck and an “unstable fracture” of the T6 vertebrae.
Scott said that if Dillon hadn’t called 911 so quickly, she likely would not have made it to the hospital alive with two collapsed lungs. He feels confident that angels must have been around the survivors once they hit the ground.
Tad, Dillon and Scott remained at the Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs. Dillon and Tad had compression fractures in his spine and some cervical pain and instability. Scott suffered pain in his back and neck, and had several broken ribs, as well as an ankle sprain and a broken ankle.
At the hospital, they let Scott know that Gaby had passed. Apparently, she and the pilot, Hans Vandervlught of Refugio, were wearing seatbelts and the impact from the crash ripped their aorta right off their hearts. They died almost instantly on impact. Scott and the children were not wearing seatbelts. Scott said what was unusual was that more times than not, Gaby didn’t wear a seatbelt. Scott was able to get Gaby’s sister and her husband on the phone to help out with the funeral arrangements.
When Sara got to Denver, where she was airlifted in haste due to the severity of her injuries, she had major problems with her leg. She had tissue and muscle damage, and she was intubated and highly medicated for the first week. Gaby’s sisters and brother and Scott’s sisters and brother were there with Sara while she was recovering. Scott’s first sight of Sara after the crash was of a group of family members loving and praying over her. Sara was oblivious to it all; she was just trying to survive.
Before he could navigate Sara through her recovery, Scott and the boys would travel back to Corpus Christi to lay Gaby to rest. Scott and the kids were overwhelmed and gracious by the magnitude of family, friends and community that helped make this tragic time a little more bearable.
Following the funeral, the boys returned to school and Scott flew back to Denver to take care of Sara. He decided to proceed with the necessary steps in getting Sara ready and able to travel back to Corpus Christi. He wanted the intubation removed, and he was insistent on removing the morphine therapy. It was not easy because the hospital was fighting him on these demands. When Sara finally came to, Scott had to tell her that her mother was in heaven. Sara had moments of lucidity, but initially, she was in and out of reality.
Scott began to assess her himself as far as muscle activity and reflexes. There was still major concern about her head injury, but the more she came down off of the morphine, the more Sara acted normally. Sara did have major problems with the wound healing on her leg, and they wanted to do skin grafts, but family was insistent on forgoing the skin graft. They wanted to wait to schedule a skin graft.
Scott felt it was time to move her out of the ICU, but was met with opposition on this issue. The nurse in charge of the ICU said they couldn’t do it because it was Saturday. After some debate and rumblings, Scott got his wish. He compared the effort to an act of Congress, considering the number of approvals they needed to get her moved.
Scott discovered the quality of the rehab facilities there were inadequate for the level of rehabilitation Sara was going to need. This set in motion his networking skills in effort to return his daughter to her hometown Corpus Christi. He posted his situation on Facebook, and found many friends eager to help. He called the airport in Corpus and explained his predicament as suggested by friends. By now, everyone was familiar with the accident and the situation, and as a community, everyone was eager to help.
He asked about two leer jets he knew were in the hangar; the secretary told him who owned them, but when he asked for the phone number, the dispatcher told him to let her worry about that. Five minutes later, she called him back and asked him when he wanted them there; it was taken care of.
When Scott informed Sara’s nurse that there would be a plane there by noon, she was adamant that Sara not leave the hospital or travel. He had the plane on the way with a doctor oxygen, etc., but the hospital would not budge. In the morning, he was at it again, trying to convince the nurses, but they remained headstrong against her leaving. When he finally got the permission to transport Sara, she was positioned plank-style and flat on her back for the flight, strapped in.
Many doctors who renewed Sara’s scans felt it was an emergency and she needed spinal fusion surgery, but Scott thought it was worth the risk to just keep her in a brace and be extra careful and see if the spine would heal on its own. If it didn’t, he knew she would need the surgery later. He kept her in a plastic back brace for quite some time, and in a hospital bed in her room for her recovery. Fortunately, they had plenty of help from friends and family. Dillon also helped out with his sister, like a nurse taking care of a patient.
As the years pass since this tragedy, the Humpal family continues to heal. “As an outsider looking in, it is really good to see whenever difficult times hit, the family truly bands together,” said London High School Principal Rebecca Hitchcock. “At the core, the family is truly beautiful on the inside and outside. Both Dillon and Sara love their daddy immensely. They come to all of each others’ events, and they are extremely close and supportive.”
At the ceremony for the new athletic complex and weight room at London High School, which bears Gaby and Tad’s names, Scott was deeply moved and inspired by the connection with the community. Dillon led the ceremony at “See You at the Pole,” which is an annual gathering of Christian students at a flagpole in front of their local schools for prayer. Hitchcock is impressed by Dillon and Sara’s resilience, and how they have taken a tragedy and turned it into empowerment.
“No matter what the circumstances, the Humpals will always step up to help out and rise to the occasion,” she said. “They make no excuses as a family.” Hitchcock has heard Dillon say that this is what his mom would have expected him to do.
Pastor Bill Cornelius and his wife, Jessica, have known the Humpals for years. They treat the Humpal children as if they were their own, as Scott and Gaby always had treated the Cornelius children. “Any time, day or night, if any one of Scott’s kids came to his door, they would be welcomed in, and vice versa,” Bill said. “What is really special is how much the Humpals love and take care of each other.”
Bill mentioned Gaby’s spiritual relationship with Christ, how excited she was about what Jesus was doing in her life and how she flew to Mexico to spread the news of her salvation and her love for Christ. He said he was told that Gaby was reading her Bible on the plane while they were circling the runway in Hayden.
“It was like she knew Jesus was in heaven waiting for her, and that she had brought more people to my church than any one person before and after her death,” Bill said. “She would always bring up her spirituality, but not in an arrogant or puffed-up way – more of in a way of sharing the good news.” In his heart, Bill feels there is no doubt that Gaby’s guardian angel is still looking over Scott, Dillon and Sara.
Bill was on the phone with Scott the night Gaby passed away. He felt the pain and anguish that Scott was going through at the onset of this tragedy. He went on to say, “What is really significant about Scott is how his spiritual side has not died. We all know of spiritual men that shake their fist at God when a loved one dies unexpectedly. If anything, he has grown closer in his walk with God. Scott has taken on the reins of being both mom and dad seamlessly with love and vigor. He did truly experience a loss, but he pours all of his time into his kids.”
As strange as it seems after his senior year, Dillon’s future won’t be with a tennis racquet in his hands. He doesn’t plan on playing tennis in college; he wants to be an orthopedic surgeon. He has steady hands that will fit nicely around a scalpel. Dillon is at the top of his class right now academically, and he plans on going to Texas A&M next fall. Scott encourages him to focus on academics, which they both feel will take up most of his time anyway. Dillon wants to have time to focus on grades solely. He is taking all AP classes right now, which makes him familiar with the demands of being one of the best.
Sara is still engaged in tennis and volleyball fulltime. Her promising athletic career is just getting started. The halls of London High School are fortunate to have her as part of their student body for a few more years.