What would you do differently if you knew you had only days, minutes, or even seconds to live? Tessa Ashford knows what she would do, but she’s not sure if her boyfriend gave it much thought before dying in a fiery helicopter crash seven years ago.
“I have to believe there was this moment where he made a choice,” Tessa says.
Witnesses did find her 38-year-old boyfriend, Jason Dahl, alive about 20 feet from the wreckage on a ridgeline in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. However, he died moments later from third-degree burns over most of his body. Four other people also perished in the accident.
“He was going through a lot. He crawled from the helicopter. His body was burning. I want to think he had time.”
But she doesn’t know with certainty and the unknowingness still haunts her.
The Day of Trauma
A lot about that day troubles this 40-something co-founder of Move To CEO, a faith-based marketing company. Though Tessa has moved on, and plans to get married next year, Jason’s death has left an indelible mark on her mind, body, and soul.
She sometimes relives the moments before he went to work that day as a pilot for the Pigeon Forge-based Smoky Mountain Helicopters, a company that offers sightseers a birds-eye view of the Smoky Mountain area.
“He was in the shower. I was running off…I put my priority on a meeting.” No hug, or warm goodbye. Just: “I love you. See ya later.” And she was off.
Later that day, the hairstylist who worked below Tessa’s Sevierville office would dash up the stairs to inform her of a downed chopper—news that ultimately turned her world upside-down. She didn’t even realize her phone had died.
What would you do differently if you had only days, hours, or seconds to live?
The Ring Never Given
The days that followed are a blur. A funeral in Tennessee. And another in Oregon, where the two had grown up. They moved across the country for one reason. He wanted to become a helicopter pilot and had enrolled in a school in East Tennessee.
“I couldn’t sleep at all,” she says, recalling the mind-numbing grief caused by the sudden death of her longtime boyfriend whom she fully intended to marry. “I didn’t work for three months. My business was completely strapped, financially drained.”
Aggravating the heart wounds, Jason’s mother claimed all rights to her son’s finances, stating that it was Tessa’s “fault that we didn’t get married.”
While cleaning out his possessions, Tessa did find an engagement ring in his car. And the question will forever go unanswered.
When had he planned to give it to her?
A Long Journey
“It’s been a long, long journey,” she tells me over coffee, sharing details about her move to Hawaii, where she and her fiancé fell in love. “Oh, it’s so beautiful,” she says of her time there before returning to Tennessee. “I started meditating and listening to Christian music. I let my anger toward (Jason’s) mother go. God is what got me through.”
But her faith that only a belief in Jesus would grant eternal life also caused the greatest agony.
Just a few days before the fatal crash, she told Jason of her plans to rededicate her life to Christ through a water baptism and asked if he would make Jesus the Lord of his life as well. Please, get baptized, she begged. “I want to be in heaven with you.”
“‘Why do I have to believe that?’” He asked her, perturbed. ‘I think if we do good, it will all work out… I don’t want anyone to tell me what to believe.”’
He was adamant, she says. He refused to believe.
As he crawled from the burning helicopter, engulfed in flames, Tessa wonders. Did he call out to Jesus?
What would you do differently if you had only seconds to live?