Don and Eva Piper were faithful Christians leading fulfilling lives as parents of three small children, and as pastor and wife, they were very involved in their church community. One fateful day in 1989, their lives would drastically change forever when an 18-wheeler hit Don’s Ford Escort head on, crushing it and killing Don instantly. This tragic fatality did not only impact the Piper family, their church and community, it would also profoundly affect countless people all around the world.
“90 Minutes in Heaven” is the true story based on The New York Times’ best-selling book “90 Minutes in Heaven: A True Story of Death and Life” (Revell, $13.99) with more than 7 million copies in 46 languages sold. The movie, which stars Hayden Christensen (“Star Wars: Episode III”) and Kate Bosworth (“Superman Returns”) will premiere in theaters Sept. 11.
Our Sunday Visitor spoke with Don and Eva Piper, who recounted highlights of their incredible, life-altering journey.
Recalling the crash
On Jan. 18, 1989, Pastor Don Piper was returning home from a spiritual conference, and while driving over a bridge in torrential rain, he was hit by a tractor-trailer and killed instantly. He was pronounced dead by four sets of EMTs, and his body was covered with a tarp for 90 minutes.
During that time, Don’s soul was experiencing unspeakable beauty and grace in heaven!
Traveling through the area, driving back from the same conference, another pastor came upon the scene and observed the crushed vehicle. He begged the EMTs to allow him to pray over the victim. They tried to dissuade him, telling him it was too late, but eventually permitted him. The pastor crawled in through the trunk, prayed for Don and began to sing songs of praise to God. Suddenly, Don’s heart began to beat and he even murmured a song. There was much excitement and then a race to get Don to a hospital.
“They took me to a regional hospital about 30 miles away, and I was cleaned up there. ... Arrangements were made to get me to a Level 1 trauma center in Houston 85 miles away,” Don said. But, the weather was so bad that he couldn’t be air-lifted. He was driven by ambulance the entire way.
“It was really a nightmare from beginning to the end,” Don said of the process of getting him to the hospitals.
It would be a very long and extremely challenging journey for Don and his family throughout his recovery and rehabilitation. Though it was exceedingly miraculous to come back from the dead, Don had many open wounds, broken bones, and excruciating pain. “If you can hurt worse than that, I don’t know what it would be like,” he said. Don also developed pneumonia in both lungs.
“In catastrophic injuries, it’s not that which takes your life, it’s the pneumonia,” Don explained. “I had traction for my limbs, so I could not be elevated to receive breathing treatments, which means you’re going to die!” he said. “It was really a race against time at that point, and they didn’t know what they were going to do.”
Don had to fight for his life. At times, he wasn’t sure if he really wanted to. He deeply grieved the loss of the bliss of heaven he had experienced during that 90 minutes when his body lay dead under the tarp.
“I wasn’t just ill and hurt, I was despondent over what I had seen and lost.” Every day, Don asked God, “You brought me back for this?”
Friends and family rallied together to help Don and his family, including Don’s 80-year-old mentor who set him straight, telling him to get his “act together,” change his attitude, and accept the charity of others.
Throughout the long, dark night of overcoming the injuries, both Don and Eva’s prayer lives have deepened.
“I never really, really sought God with all my heart,” Eva said, until she saw her broken-up husband in the hospital bed. She “literally cried out, ‘God, why did you let this happen?’”
“Peace came over me,” said Eva, who felt God reassure her, saying, “I’m here; I’m here right beside you.” That peace wasn’t felt all throughout, but Eva would recall it and pray.
Don and Eva Piper are on a mission to tell others about heaven. Don has spoken to more than 3,000 audiences since the release of his book.
“I took a six-month sabbatical to speak,” Don said, “and have been speaking for 10 years.”
Donna-Marie Cooper O’Boyle is an EWTN TV host and best-selling author of 20 books. Find her at donnacooperoboyle.com.