By Mike Holtzclaw
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Former flight attendant Rachel Neal shares her journey from recovering from a devastating accident to becoming a teacher, writer and now a filmmaker.
Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
A lot has happened to Rachel Neal in the 23 years since she was badly burned in an airplane fire while serving as a flight attendant for ValuJet.
A lot of surgeries, a handful of career changes, a family.
Now, with an online advice column, a book and a short film about to hit the festival circuit, the 51-year-old Kecoughtan High School graduate figures it was all part of the same journey.
“It’s funny,” she said in a phone interview from her home in Atlanta, “because when you look at everything, as a result of that (airplane fire), I was kind of led down this path to what I’m doing now. You can think something is the worst thing ever, that you’ll never recover, and it ends up turning around and allowing you to accomplish great things.”
Her book, “Hey Rachel: Real Talk, Real Relationships, Real Advice,” came out in December, compiling some of the best and most provocative material from the relationship advice column she runs at heyrachel.com.
The 18-minute film “Raggity Anns,” inspired by some of the stories in the book, started out as a feature-length screenplay but was condensed to a short in order for Neal to retain creative autonomy over the content. It already has won awards at various events and has been accepted to play at the Independent Shorts Awards to be held in Los Angeles in February.
It’s the latest step in a journey that began on June 8, 1995, when a ValuJet DC-9 caught fire as it was seconds away from taking off on a runway in Atlanta. Neal, then 28, was a flight attendant seated in the rear of the plane when she looked down and saw flames at her feet.
“We were just lifting upward when the fire happened,” she recalled. “The pilot of the plane behind us saw it on the back of our plane, and he radioed, ‘You have a fire.’ Our pilot put the nose of the plane back down. Had they taken off, it would have exploded.
“I always think of that ‘what if’ factor. What if that Delta pilot had not radioed to us, or had not radioed in time? It would have been a done deal.”
As the ValuJet plane jolted to a stop, the flames were knee high on Neal as she unbuckled her seat belt. She remembers commotion, and trying to hurry up the center aisle while also calling out to the passengers to get out.
“The next thing I remember is sitting on the runway, looking down at the skin on my arms and legs and just seeing meat,” she said. “It was terrifying. I have vague patches of memory waiting for the ambulance, but I remember looking at the plane and it was on fire. There was no top to the plane.”
She had third-degree burns on her arms and legs, and a piece of metal shrapnel had lodged in her knee. Two decades later, her arms mostly have healed, but she remains self-conscious about the scars on her legs and rarely wears dresses.
Her convalescence was lengthy, and by the time she dealt with the emotional fallout it took her five years to start really functioning again.
She had been a teacher before she took to the skies, but she wanted to try something different. Her experience as a burn patient drew her toward counseling, and she got a master’s degree from Clark Atlanta University.
She worked for a while with the homeless community in Atlanta, both for the city government and a private facility, and later worked with a company that marketed bottled water. Her current “day job” is with Georgia’s inspector general office. She is married and has a 17-year-old son.
Neal always has made time for creative pursuits, writing books for adults and children, and picking up freelance work for magazines and websites. She began gravitating toward relationship advice and eventually launched her blog at heyrachel.org in 2007.
“It seemed like a good fit, with my background in counseling,” she said.
The questions on her blog often get juicy. One man recently wrote that his wife had accused him of cheating (“What man’s wife hasn’t, right?”) and admits that he has his suspicions about her fidelity.
“Now, I am not an insecure man,” he wrote. “I don’t want to accuse her like she has accused me in the past, so what steps do you think I should take?”
Neal replied that most women who cheat do so “when their man is no longer providing them with the four S’s — security, strength, stability and sex.” She then gives a lengthy analysis, with wit and sass, about what warning signs to look for and why husbands and wives take different approaches to cheating.
That’s the type of exchanges that led her to write “Hey Rachel: Real Talk, Real Relationships, Real Advice,” and later to adapt it into the short film “Raggity Anns.”
With her full-time job and her family responsibilities, she stays busy. But she’s not complaining.
“All of a sudden, after many, many years of trying to make it happen, it feels like everything is happening at once,” Neal said. “That’s a lot of work, but it’s a good thing.”