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Plane crash survivor savors new life

Chip and Lowelle Lomel look down at their babbling baby and smile.

She's a miracle child, but not in the sense that you may think. She wasn't born prematurely and she didn't survive a horrible disease.

The miracle is that this family is intact, and now includes a new child, a girl born amid trauma, suffering and renewal.

More than a year ago, the Lomels began trying to have another baby. But those plans, and their lives, were abruptly ripped apart when Chip Lomel was severely injured in a plane crash that killed two men and injured another in the summer of 2003.

In the months that followed, he nearly died. But recovery came at last, and with it a new life.

Three months ago, Lowelle Lomel gave birth to their fourth child _ a girl they named Presley Grace _ Presley after the hospital in Memphis where Lomel was treated, and Grace, because they truly believe that it was by the grace of God that Lomel survived.

"It's been a rough year," said Lowelle Lomel, 40. "But we realize we are so fortunate."

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Misfortune struck on July 2, 2003, when Chip Lomel, director of group sales for a medical manufacturing company, flew to Memphis on a twin-engine Beechcraft to confer with officials from his company, Medtronic Sofamor Danek. The company makes implants used in spinal surgery.

The pilot was Dr. David Cahill, a prominent Tampa neurosurgeon. They were joined by Lomel's co-workers, John Murphy and Ed Brown.

The men left Peter O. Knight airport early that morning, descending into Memphis International Airport three hours later.

All of a sudden, the plane dipped, slapped the ground with a wing, and flipped. Cahill and Murphy died. Lomel and Brown, of St. Petersburg, were critically injured.

Lomel was hospitalized for five weeks with traumatic injuries to his abdominal area. He endured four surgeries to repair the damage, and was on the brink of death at one point when an infection invaded his body. He spent his weeks at the Elvis Presley Memorial Trauma Center in Memphis, one of the nation's leading institutions.

When he returned home to South Tampa, Lomel was no longer the strapping 6-foot-2, 220-pound father of three. He had lost 50 pounds and couldn't lift his children.

But after a long recovery period and an eight-hour surgery in March, in which doctors re-created an abdominal muscle wall, he is almost back to normal.

They even managed to have a baby along the way _ Presley Grace, their miracle baby.

"It's just so amazing," Lowelle Lomel said. "She reminds us how precious life is, and how by the grace of God, Chip survived."

Lomel, 40, was away from work for more than a year, but he flew to corporate headquarters in Memphis several months ago _ on a commercial flight. He will not fly in small airplanes again and still gets nervous at landings.

He travels a couple of days a week for work and is one of the company's top sales managers.

Lowelle stays home with the children: Their oldest son Trey is 8; daughter Micah Laine is 6; another son, Banks, is 3; and Presley is 3 months.

Chip Lomel's life has changed, and the experience has made him more reflective.

He had always been an active, involved dad, out playing with their children, but that has become even more important, his wife said. "Now, he's out there all the time."

Chip Lomel said he appreciates the color of his children's hair, the sparkle in their eyes.

"I didn't do that before," Lomel said. "Life is not so complex now."

The accident put things in perspective, he said. "I don't sweat the small stuff."

Even his management style has changed.

"I'm very even keel, there are no highs and lows," he said. "It's had a very nice calming effect."

In traffic, he doesn't get angry at inconsiderate drivers anymore.

"I now acquiesce to crazy drivers, I don't coast through stops," he said. "I just sit back now and watch everybody else get enraged."

As for his marriage, he will never forget seeing his wife every time he woke up in the hospital. "I will never for the rest of my life take Lowelle for granted."