By Mary Rezac
This year, for Father Esequiel Sanchez, the Feast Day of Our Lady of Guadalupe brings up terrifying memories – and a huge reason to be thankful.
Sanchez was one of 103 passengers aboard Aeromexico Flight 2431, which crashed and burned in a field shortly after takeoff on July 31 of this year.
While there were some injuries, no one died.
“I personally attributed that to the intercession of Our Lady, and so did the other passengers, I think most of us…saw it as miraculous,” Sanchez told CNA.
Shortly after takeoff in Durango, the plane caught strong winds, causing the left wing to hit the ground and the plane to lose both of its engines.
As the craft was hurtling toward the ground, Sanchez said he thought he would either die, be paralyzed, or be burned by subsequent explosions. All he walked away with was a broken arm.
But his fear in the moment didn’t stop his priestly training from kicking in – he immediately started to pray out loud.
“They say police officers and firefighters and soldiers will tell you that when you get into a crisis situation, your training kicks in. I think that’s happened to me too,” he said.
“I prayed ‘God come to our assistance, Blessed Mother come to help us,’ and then I began to absolve everybody on the plane. I immediately said: ‘I absolve everyone on this plane, may the Lord have mercy,’” he recalled.
“I thought it was just going to be it, because it was happening so fast. You don’t (crash) a 100-ton airplane at 150 miles per hour and think you’re gonna be ok. But happily we were.”
When the plane crash-landed, emergency crews helped evacuate everyone before the plane exploded into flames.
Sanchez’ first thought was for the victims.
“I just couldn’t imagine finding someone’s mother who died and I survived. So for me to I wanted to tell them that I tried to get to them, so my primary concern was getting to the victims as best I could, and start ministering to them. When that’s what you’re concerned about, that’s what you’re going to go after.”
Some survivors had worse injuries – a little girl with burn injuries was taken to a hospital, others had neck and back injuries.
The plane “completely disintegrated,” Sanchez said, so the lack of deaths or worse injuries is miraculous.
Besides being a plane crash survivor, Sanchez is also the rector of the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Des Plaines, Ill., a Chicago suburb.
The shrine is the site of a massive celebration for the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe every year on Dec. 12. The event attracts more than 200,000 pilgrims annually, many whom walk for hours or even days on foot to get there.
For Sanchez, and for some other Durango plane crash survivors who have made the trek to the shrine this year, the Feast Day has taken on new significance.
“So for me, on Our Lady of Guadalupe today, and all those memories…I’m a pilgrim just like them, I come to give her thanks,” he said.
“Some of the survivors came and did the same thing, they came to give thanks to Our Lady.”
Besides being grateful for his survival and lack of serious injury, Sanchez said one of the greatest blessings since the event has been the “outpouring of everyone from the city of Chicago and beyond.”
“Everyone found out about the story and they prayed for us, there’s no place I can go without people saying we prayed for you,” he said.
“So when you get that kind of generosity, my only response other than to say thank you is: I am so looking forward to becoming a better priest and a better minister, and I do things with a lot more joy,” he said.
Sanchez said he loves his ministry as the rector at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe, and that every year it brings him hope to see the numerous pilgrims on Dec. 12, many of whom come with their whole families.
“I find no more effective image or evangelizing tool than Our Lady of Guadalupe and her message,” he said.
And whether you’re a pilgrim hurtling through the air in a near-death experience plane crash, or an undocumented immigrant trekking to the Shrine to beg her help: “She’s a source of hope.”