Brien Dews: A Positive Outlook Pays Off

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By Nicole Smith

The Dews family, from right to left: Brien with his son, Keagan; wife, Sara; and daughter, Elly.On October 25, 2000, Brien Dews of Rockford, Michigan, was the passenger in a single-engine plane being flown by one of his friends, Dan Rose. During takeoff in heavy fog, the plane darted off the runway and hit a tree. Dan died instantly from the initial impact. The plane was quickly engulfed in flames and came to rest on the only door, trapping Brien inside.

Brien, who was 30 at the time, remembers the accident, but is not sure how he escaped. “Powers higher than myself pulled me out,” he says. Once out of the wreckage, Brien still had to walk through thick woods to find help. He had sustained second- and third-degree burns to about 35 percent of his body, including both of his legs, his right arm, and both of his hands. He was in a medically induced coma for 6 weeks, during which he also suffered from lung problems and several infections.

Brien later learned three other planes had crashed in the area that day, and he was the only survivor. “I have an overwhelming sense of cheating death,” remarks Brien. “I had no business surviving violence like that.”

On the day of the plane crash, Brien’s son, Keagan, turned 2 months old; his daughter, Elly, was 2 years old. Brien says he feels “lucky” and “blessed” to have survived the crash and feels his purpose is to be here for his two children and his wife, Sara. 

Recovery and Return to Work

Despite the pain of recovery and the permanence of a burn injury, Brien is a self-described optimist who looks for the best in any situation. Sara describes Brien as “ambitious and determined.” She says he can accomplish anything he sets his mind to, which proved to be quite true in his recovery.Brien with his son, Keagan.

Brien, an anthropology graduate from Grand Valley State University, had opened a clock-making business in 1997. Brien had learned the craft, one that requires much handwork and precision, from his father, a fellow clockmaker. Although Brien’s right hand was badly injured from the fire, he was determined not to let that affect his career. In rehab, Brien compensated by learning how to work left- handed. While he has since learned how to use his right hand again, his left one now takes the lead.

Brien was able to return to his business, All Good Time, and today makes parts for antique clocks, and repairs and restores clocks of all sizes, from pocket watches to the town tower clock. 

Commitment to the Burn Community

While Brien was still a patient in the rehab unit, a social worker told him about the Phoenix Society and the upcoming World Burn Congress that was to be held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, later that year. Brien remembers thinking, “Yeah, right—why would I want to go to something with a bunch of burned people sitting around talking about what happened to them?”

Despite his misgivings, Brien decided that since “World Burn” was being held near his hometown he would at least attend a few of the events. Today Brien says that the Phoenix Society has changed his life and that he would never miss a World Burn. He finds “inspiration from meeting other people and hearing their stories.” He also explains that World Burn “helps me find my voice and develop my story.” Brien serves as a SOAR (Survivors Offering Assistance in Recovery) volunteer and while he enjoys helping others, he also believes he benefits from volunteering with the program.Buses by the Beach, a group of VW van lovers, hosts spring and fall campouts in Michigan each year that raise money or the Spectrum Health Regional Burn Unit and The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors.

Brien has found a way to use one of his hobbies to create a unique fundraiser for two organizations that have dramatically changed his life—the Spectrum Health Regional Burn Unit and The Phoenix Society for Burn Survivors. Brien, the owner of a 1984 Volkswagon (VW) Vanagon Wolfsburg Edition bus and a recently acquired 1985 VW Wolfsburg Weekender bus, co-founded Buses by the Beach with his friend, and fellow VW bus owner, Todd Olson. The loosely assembled group of VW van lovers hosts a semi-annual event campout for VW van enthusiasts to display their buses and share in a weekend of fun and camaraderie.

First held in May 2003, Buses by the Beach raises money through donations, a raffle, corporate grants, and the sale of promotional items. The spring campout is held at the Grand Rogue Campground in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has grown rapidly, with the most recent campout attracting about 40 buses from as far away as Florida and Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. The fall event rotates to various campgrounds near the shore of Lake Michigan.

Brien and Sara have both enjoyed creating and participating in Buses by the Beach and have made numerous close friends through the event, all while being able to raise funds for two organizations that are extremely important to them. 

Focus on the Positive

Brien and Sara both believe that the accident has brought out the positive aspects of their lives. Brien is very open about his injury and said he doesn’t feel self- conscious about his scars. Sara also sees Brien’s scars as a positive influence for their children and hopes it will help them to learn tolerance and to be accepting of people with differences.Buses by the Beach organizers, from left to right: founders Todd Olson and Brien Dews, webmaster Billy Hirt, and raffle captain Pete Owsianowski.

Sara says, “Brien often says the accident was the best thing that ever happened to him.” She believes it has brought their family closer together and changed their priorities and perspectives in life. 


For more information on Buses by the Beach, visit their website at

Nicole E. Smith is a PhD student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She is also a burn survivor. 


This story is an excerpt from The Phoenix Society’s® Burn Support News, Fall Issue 2004. Burn Support News is a quarterly publication that contains articles on the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of burn recovery.  All Rights Reserved.
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