Crash survivors from St. Louis to try again on Africa documentary

Thursday, November 26, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST

ST. LOUIS — More than three months after surviving a plane crash in Kenya, two young suburban St. Louis filmmakers are ready to move forward on their documentary about living on little money in Africa.

The original plan was for 25-year-old Dan Parris and 26-year-old Rob Lehr to leave behind their comfortable lives and try to live off $1.25 a day in Africa. But in August after just three days in Africa, their plane crashed over a slum outside of Nairobi, Kenya.

Parris was hospitalized for two weeks with a fractured back and collarbone. Lehr was haunted for weeks by witnessing the flight's pilot and air mechanic die.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in its Wednesday editions that with their recoveries progressing, the two friends still believe they have a story to tell.

"We are still trying to work that out," Parris told the newspaper. "The crash is probably going to be the climax."

The original plan was for Parris, a Christian, and Lehr, an atheist, to set off on a journey about faith confronting skepticism. The movie's title: "Give a Damn?"

Parris has been involved in church activities and mission work and had long considered a documentary on poverty in Africa. After months of planning, the pair flew to Kenya on July 30.

Two days later, the filmmakers took a plane ride over a slum near Nairobi. They were strapped in the back of a Cessna 206, aiming their cameras out the door, when the plane began to descend, then struck a telephone wire and slammed into a high-rise apartment building before falling to the ground.

The pilot died on impact. Lehr got out and helped Parris crawl out. Then he tried to free air mechanic Ryan Williams, but fire engulfed the plane. Lehr reached through the flames and unfastened Williams' seat belt, but had to back out when his leg started to burn. Williams died.

"I was just this close to being able to help him," Lehr said. "If we could have put the fire out, it would have been different. … That was something I struggled with for two months."

The cause of the crash is still unknown.

Two other members of the film crew, brothers David and Tim Petreka, remained in Africa, interviewing experts and filming scenes of slums, HIV clinics, orphanages and even a pygmy village. They moved from Kenya to the Congo, Rwanda, Tanzania and the Sudan. They returned to St. Louis on Saturday.

They said they were struck by Africans who sacrificed what little they had to help one another. David Petreka recalled a driver in Kenya who had saved for three years to get about $1,000 for his wedding dowry, but instead used the money to purchase land for an orphanage.

Parris raised $25,000 before the trip but believes he needs at least another $10,000 more to edit and produce the film. He is living at a friend's home in St. Louis, recovering from his injuries and figuring out how to raise the money.

Meanwhile, the story line may be coming full circle — the believer finding greater meaning in a tragic event, the skeptic not convinced it was anything more than an unlucky twist.

Lehr doesn't draw much meaning from the crash, other than to say awful things happen for no good reason.

"There is no rhyme or reason to it," Lehr said.

Parris isn't so sure.

"I really think God was writing the story, and it happened for a reason," he said. "What was amazing to me is that the guy who was afraid of dying, the guy who didn't know if it was his responsibility to 'give a damn,' he's the one who saved my life."


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