On that perfect summer afternoon, as on so many days, Stephanie Nielson felt she lived a charmed life. She kissed her children-serious Claire, feisty Jane, inquisitive Oliver and baby Nicholas-left them with her mother-in-law and joined her husband, Christian, for a ride in the Arizona sky. One minute he was taking the twin-engine plane into the clouds; the next they were bracing for impact. After that came a crash, a fire and a death-defying crawl out of molten airplane wreckage. Her face was destroyed; burns covered more than 80 percent of her body.
In that moment, Stephanie lost her health, her beauty and the idyllic existence she'd chronicled on her popular blog (nieniedialogues.com). "I lost my sense of who I was," she says. "I felt I had nothing." But after battling through months of pain and despair, she again found joy in the simple things and discovered what really made life worth living. Her journey has culminated in a book, Heaven Is Here
, which hits stores April 3. "I know who I am, my inner worth," says Stephanie, 30, who lives in Provo, Utah. "It's everything inside that makes you who you are, that makes you beautiful."
More than three years after that fateful Aug. 16, 2008, the Nielson home is filled with the bustle of a young family. Stephanie and Christian, 33, help the children build gnome houses out of pizza boxes, and the kids stage a play. "Mommy, look!" says Oliver, 6, who has earned a cookie at school for reading. "Awesome!"says Stephanie, hugging, kissing and high-fiving her son.
She almost lost a lifetime of such moments. After the crash she spent 4½ months in the hospital, much of it in a medically induced coma. "They didn't think she'd make it," says Christian, who is now back at work selling life insurance. Seriously injured, with a broken back, he had burns on 40 percent of his body and the right side of his face. (Copilot Doug Kinneard, 48, died shortly after the crash.)
At first Stephanie was unable even to accept what had happened. "I refused to look in the mirror," she says. Finally, one night, alone in her hospital room, she picked one up. She recognized her vivid green eyes, but the face gazing back at her was that of a stranger. "I thought, 'That's me?' My head was shaved, I had no hair, no eyelashes, sores all over my face. It was scary."
The worst was yet to come. Toward the end of her hospital stay, Christian brought the kids to see their mom for the first time since the crash. "They came in expecting to see me," says Stephanie, now sitting in her sun-filled kitchen and wiping away tears. "They didn't recognize me with all the burns and scars. They were like, 'Who or what is that?' When I called them over for a hug, they were afraid. It was awful." After the kids left, she broke down: "I literally felt my heart breaking. I said, 'I don't want to see them again. Let my sisters take them.' I wanted to die. I couldn't see all I had to live for."
But her children came back and began to warm up. For a while, Claire, then 7, would only chat while sitting outside her hospital room. "One day, she lost her tooth, and I said, 'Oh, let me see, come closer.' I gave her a hug, and after that it was fine." Things took longer with Nicholas. Even after the family reunited-moving from Arizona to Utah to be near relatives-he'd scream for Stephanie's sister Lucy, who had been caring for him. One night he allowed his mom to cuddle with him in bed. "For a moment," Stephanie wrote in a blog entry, "I felt like myself, a mother."
It was Christian who urged Stephanie to sit down at her computer again. Typing tortuously with aching, bandaged fingers, she wrote about pain and loss but also about small things-a warm breeze, spring flowers, her children's sleeping faces-that filled her with happiness. Another boost: hundreds of messages of support from blog fans. "We could feel this huge amount of faith and love," says Christian, who, like Stephanie, is a devout Mormon.
Yet no amount of outside encouragement could help them become a real couple again. "The doctors [said] with accidents like this, it usually ends in divorce," Stephanie says. "They didn't think we'd stay married." Head cheerleader in high school and nicknamed Snow White for her raven-haired, fair-skinned looks, "I felt beautiful all the time," Stephanie says. "The sad thing is, I only felt I had self-worth if I was beautiful." For months after the crash-or AC, as she and Christian call it-she avoided her husband's gaze; at home she kept the blinds drawn. "[At first] I couldn't even kiss him because it hurt," she says. "I threw away my swimsuits. I felt I'd never be cute or sexy again."
But Christian patiently wooed his wife, leaving notes and assuring her. "I courted her all over again," he says. "But I knew Stephanie had an inner depth that she could fall back on."
These days she's back to where she started: doing art projects with her kids, celebrating birthdays with balloon launches, hiking and skiing and sharing life's small moments with, now, many more thousands of followers.
There's one big event coming up: Nine months pregnant, Stephanie will welcome a baby girl any day now. "I know we were saved for a reason," she says. "I do miss my skin; it will never be as smooth. But I'm alive. I'm able to enjoy my children. A terrible thing happened, but I'm still me and I'm still going. I feel so lucky. I have everything."