Steve Thompson remembers his pilot radioing the "Mayday" distress signal as the single-engine Cessna in which the two men were flying plunged into the already darkened Virginia suburb of Vienna last Nov. 15.
"We had been watching a traffic accident on Old Georgetown Road in Maryland. I have just the vaguest memory of the pilot transmitting 'Mayday' and that's it," said Thompson, 34, who was aloft that day as WTOP radio's traffic reporter in the sky.
The airplane, which federal safety investigators later said apparently ran out of fuel, crashed into the treetops and came to rest, upended in the yard of an unoccupied Vienna home. Rescue workers struggled for an hour to free pilot Bernard (Wick) Wicker and 90 minutes to extricate Thompson.
"The next thing I really remember is being in the intensive care unit the next day," said Thompson yesterday in his first day of interviews since the crash.
Thompson, who credits Wicker with a landing that probably saved both their lives, has spent the ensuing 10 weeks in Fairfax Hospital recovering from a badly broken hip and an eight-inch gash in his abdomen caused when he was impaled on the plane's control column.
Wicker, who also suffered serious injuries, left the hospital Wednesday for his home in Gainesville, Va.
Both men are experienced pilots, raising questions about how the plane, owned by Colgan Airways in nearby Manassas, could have run out of fuel.Thompson refused to comment yesterday on the cause of the accident, but said both he and Wicker have consulted attorneys.
Thompson, meanwhile, is concerntrating on recuperating.
"You know it's been bad when you meet doctors for the first time and they start using the phrase '... worked to save your life," he said. A yellow, polka-dotted ribbon is tied around a traction device supporting his leg, to be undone upon his expected liberation from the hospital in two weeks.
"The hostages (in Iran) have been there for 11 days longer than I've been here," he said. "At least the people who visit me are friendly. They carry stethoscopes, not AK-47s."
The future now seems uncertain for the normally vigorous flier.
"I've always been able to earn my living from reporting," said Thompson, who has spent more than two years reporting on other people's traffic accidents before his own brush with death.
Now, he said, there are questions about his career, although he said his employers have been "incredibly supportive" during his confinement.
"First will be the gradual procedure of learning to walk again," he said. He will leave the hospital on crutches and faces the possibility of additional operations if his hip doesn't mend properly. His doctors, he said, are making no promises.
Though his memory of the crash is admittedly hazy, Thompson says he is sure that Wicker's action in the air on the night of the accident saved both of their lives.
"I asked him two years ago, when we started flying together, 'How would you handle it if the engine ever quit in the dark?'"
Thompson said Wicker, who has more than 30 years of flying experience, replied that he would look for the darkest place in the night landscape and then stall the plane into a tree.
"And that is exactly what he did," Thompson said. "I can't praise his flying abilities highly enough."
Thompson's hospital confinement has also been a time for him to ponder the inevitable question: Will he fly again?
"I'll probably do it again," said Thompson after a brief pause. "But doing it every day for a living -- that's something else."
Even Thompson's wife, Nancy, has not openly attempted to dissuade him from the thought of flying again.
"She understands," Thompson said. "She's nervous, but she understands."