As W. Mitchell wheels himself on the stage to speak, the audience quietens down. Inevitably, his badly scarred face and fingerless hands cause a hush among the audience.
With his signature irreverent sense of humor and soothing voice he soon manages to create a sense of intimacy, as though you’re sitting with an old friend. Then something magical happens and the scars fade away as Mitchell begins to tell his story.
On July 19th 1971 Mitchell started the day on top of the world. He was a strong, good looking young man of 28 who enjoyed an active life and had a passion for sports; he’d just made his first solo flight, had a dream job as a gripman on the San Francisco cable cars, and did real well with the ladies.
That afternoon he jumped on his brand new motorcycle, which he loved, and headed out to see his girlfriend. Little did he know that his life would be changed forever.
I went out on my brand new motorcycle one day. It was one of the biggest and most powerful motorcycles, a 750cc motorcycle. And was approaching an intersection, in San Francisco, when, a laundry truck, apparently he didn’t see me, went through the stop sign, and i collided with the laundry truck.
The bike went down. The gas cap pop out, and the gasoline poured out, about two and a half gallons worth, and the heated engine ignited the fire. Literally, i became a human bonfire.
Fortunately, a nearby car salesman grabbed a fire extinguisher and put out the flames. The ambulance arrived minutes later and rushed him to the hospital. When he arrived, doctors were not sure if he would be alive. He was judged to have little chance of recovery and his face had been burned beyond recognition. The only parts of his body that were not affected was the top of his head and his torso, which were protected by his helmet and jacket respectively. With horrific burns over 65% of his body and most of his face and hands literally burned off, chances of his survival were considered extremely low.
He survived only after numerous operations – including 16 skin grafts, and 13 transfusions, and through incredible care, stubbornness, determination and many, many small steps to take back control of his life
Apart from his physical appearance, all his fingers and thumbs had been burnt off in the accident and he was left with two stumps where his hands used to be.
He did have some doubts about himself though.
…Look at me. My face looks like a badly made leather quilt. It has literally made children chant, “monster, monster,” as I passed by. I have no fingers. I cannot walk.
Many people faced with his pain and problems would have given up. But Mitchell is no ordinary person, and despite his seemingly overwhelming disabilities he continued learning how to adjust to his new reality and moved to a small town in Colorado.
During this difficult time, he consistently communicates to himself that the accident had happened for a purpose.
Within six months after his accident, he was back on his feet again and co-founded Vermont Casting Inc. The company made energy-efficient wood-burning stoves and was later valued at $65 million. The tiny wood-stove company becomes Vermont’s second largest employer and his personal wealth climbed to 3 million dollars.
He even managed to learn how to fly despite his obvious difficulties. Unfortunately, fate wasn’t quite finished with Mitchell yet.
Lightning Strike Twice
On November 11, 1975 with four passengers on board, he was prepared to fly to San Francisco on a routine flight, one he had made countless times before. As the plane took off he noticed they weren’t rising as quickly as they should have.
His friend on board, Tim Rolph recounted,
We taxi-ed out on the runway. Everything seem to be like a normal take-off.
I was not happy with the way the plane was flying. It just didn’t seem to be functioning as well i thought it should. When i pulled the power to land the plane again, the plane stalled. Literally like a rock, it fell straight down. It hit the ground.
What Mitchell and his friends didn’t realize was, despite their earlier efforts to clear ice and snow off the wings, there had still been residual on the wings. It was the residual ice and snow that slowed the normal climb. They had climbed to about 100 feet before the plane stalled and fell back to earth, slamming into the runway belly up, bursting open the fuel tanks.
Mitchell yelled for his passengers to get out of the plane and he tried to follow . . . but he couldn’t move. He thought his feet were stuck under the pedals but he was wrong. He couldn’t even move those legs. He knew something was wrong.
After numerous tests, his doctor came with the dreaded news. His 12 thoracic vertebrae were completely crushed and his spinal cord is beyond repair. He would never be able to use his legs again. He needed a wheelchair.
For a man who’d just spent the last four years of his life recovering from incredibly devastating injuries, this must have seemed too much to bear.
As Mitchell tells it, every day the orderlies came into his room, put him in a wheel chair and took him to the gym. He absolutely hated it. Things were too high to reach, it was too difficult to get around and again the world seemed filled with impossibilities. Yet, every day a few more obstacles would disappear and a few more things became possible. And every day he learned to do more, and eventually to love himself a little bit more. Once again, with amazing courage and determination Mitchell managed to overcome his problems.
In 1977 he was elected Mayor of Crested Butte, Colorado, where he stopped a major company from building a billion-dollar molybdenum mine on Mount Emmons. Because of the anticipated environmental impact, Mitchell claims that he “saved a mountain”.
He had also run for Congress despite the fact that his face was grotesquely marked. His slogan? ‘Send me to congress, and I won’t be just another pretty face.’
Mitchell now lives between Santa Barbara and Hawaii and despite his many disabilities he continues to live a full life as a successful businessman, sometimes politician, environmental activist, and author. He’s also a highly sought after motivational speaker, spending much of his time traveling the world sharing his sense of humor as he walks through his life’s tragedies and what he chose to make of them.
In his own words:
Before my accidents, there were ten thousands things I could do. I could spend the rest of my life dwelling on the one thousand that I had lost, but I instead chose to focus on the nine thousands I still had left.
What I want, is to be a symbol for you. With my scarred face, my fingerless paws, my wheelchair – and real, genuine happiness in my heart – I want to be your mental image of the power of the human mind to transcend circumstances.
See Video Series Here
Video of W Mitchell Speaking About Power of Choice