A thousand feet above ground alone in a burning plane, special forces soldier Jamie Hull had two options – and both would mean almost certain death.
The rookie pilot either had to stay in the cockpit as fire burned his flesh to the bones or leap from the aircraft before it smashed into the ground in a ball of flames.
Despite the agonising pain, Jamie managed to stay conscious to bring the plane low enough so he could out climb on to the wing and jump.
The fact he is here today 14 years on to tell the tale is nothing short of miraculous. Jamie suffered 65% third-degree burns to his face and body, and his eye socket and cheek bone were shattered.
He also had severe internal injuries and battled renal failure, kidney dialysis, pneumonia and septicaemia with doctors giving him just a 5% chance of survival.
But survive he did. And after spending six months in an induced coma in the US, and a further 18 months in a UK hospital undergoing more than 60 operations, Jamie somehow pulled through.
“Quite honestly I shouldn’t be here after what I went through,” he admits.
“It is miraculous. What I endured, the price I paid for survival was off the charts in terms of suffering and injury and what I went through in those early years. I don’t know how my body was able to hold on.”
Not only did he hold on, he turned the trauma into something extraordinarily positive. Despite severe bouts of depression where he contemplated suicide, Jamie has rebuilt his life running marathons, the Race Across America and competing in the Invictus Games.
He has also gone skydiving and skiing and worked as a scuba diving instructor and motivational speaker in the hope his fight to survive will inspire those facing adversity.
Now he is hoping a book he has written about his experiences – Life on a Thread – will help others to keep going.
It was far from easy, however. “I absolutely did not think I was going to survive,” said Jamie, of Leighton Buzzard, Beds.
“I absolutely believed with all heart and all sincerity my body was going to give up the ghost. I was under no illusion because I was a trained patrol medic with 21 SAS.
“I understood more than the average person I had just been subject to massive third-degree burns. And I understood what third-degree burns meant to the human body and what I was up against.
“With far lesser burns you go to the wall in no time. Any burns surgeon will tell you it is very rare that someone with more than 40% burns makes it.”
The horrific accident happened in 2007 when, on a break from training, Jamie flew to Florida to fulfil his lifelong dream of becoming a pilot.
He was on a routine solo training flight when disaster struck and he saw flames licking their way around his aircraft.
They soon breached the cockpit around the floor pedals, working their way up his legs – but he had no escape as he was still 1,000ft above ground.
But his military training kicked in and he knew he had 45 seconds to save his life.
As the fire engulfed his body, adrenaline kicked in and somehow blocked out the searing pain as he guided the plane to
just 15ft above ground, climbed on to the wing and threw his burning body to the floor.
Describing those 45 seconds that were to change his life for ever, Jamie says: “Initially there was some panic going on. This was no drill – it was an actual emergency.
“What action was I going to take to get myself out of that situation? I didn’t know if I was going to make it.
“It was not an easy position to be in. I was in a vulnerable position – I was a thousand feet above ground when the flames breached the cockpit.
“It isn’t like driving a car down the M1 when the car sets on fire.
“I came up with the idea that I was going to jump. I think the presence of mind came from the confidence of being a trained paratrooper.
“They drill you repetitively in the forces. At the time you question it but in hindsight when I reflect on it, the reason why the training was beneficial to me was that when push comes to shove you react autonomously.
“So for me the aircraft caught fire and I needed an exit plan, and that was my exit plan – to make a jump off the wing. I was confident to do that because of the training I had received as a paratrooper.
“It all sounds very Hollywood – but the truth is I was a vulnerable man, in a precarious position, fearing for his life with flames building up in the cockpit, and with very little time to spare.
“My exit plan saved my life – only just. If I had taken more flames it would have been the end of me. I was a very seriously wounded individual.
“I couldn’t have taken moments or seconds longer in that cockpit. I got out of there by the skin of my teeth.”
It took 15 minutes for the ambulance to arrive and by some miracle Jamie, 45, managed to remain conscious until the paramedics gave him morphine and he passed out.
“I very nearly did pass out from the pain,” he says. “I was holding on with everything I had. I felt like a mouse on a thread and any moment the thread was going to snap, I wasn’t going to be able to hold on any more.
“That would have been me gone. I don’t know how I held on. Within those 15 minutes after I jumped I must’ve given it everything I had to hold on.”
Jamie was rushed to hospital and immediately put into an induced coma.
When his parents Shirley and Mick arrived from the UK they could not recognise their handsome son beneath the swathes of bandages, his body swollen up like the Michelin Man as it held on to any fluid it had to try to battle the burns.
Doctors told Shirley her son had little chance of survival – 5% at most.
And as the weeks and months went on complications including renal failure, sepsis and pneumonia all threatened Jamie’s life. But when medics told Shirley the only way to save her son was to amputate his legs, she refused, saying he would rather die than live as an amputee.
“She’s a tough cookie. She gave it both barrels to the surgeons – she said do what you can and I will accept the risks for my son,” reveals Jamie.
“If I would’ve had a choice – no legs and go on, or keep your legs and risk death, then I would have taken the latter option.
“I wouldn’t have wanted that level of injury – the burns, the internals, the fractures and no legs. Forget it. I would’ve wanted to check out. I do have permanent nerve damage in my legs, I am disabled. But I am grateful for small mercies.”
Doctors told Jamie it was only the fact he was in supreme physical fitness thanks to his military training that he survived at all.
But survival came at a huge price.
Looking at his burned face and body in the mirror for the first time was a devastating moment for Jamie.
And every time he caught his reflection in a window it made him question whether he had a future at all.
“I despised myself for the first few years and in the very early stages I looked like the Elephant Man,” he says.
“I was the antithesis of the handsome chap who had gone before him.
“The burns absolutely changed and distorted my whole appearance. That was a very hard thing to accept, the aspect of changing faces, and to refind my self-confidence and self-esteem.
“I was blessed with an extraordinary high level of mental health resilience.
“I have been through a lot in my life – I am an ex-police officer, I’ve been in the forces. I’ve got the ability to maintain that glass-half-full sense of tomorrow is going to be a better day.
“But I won’t deny it was no walk in the park. It put everything else in my former life into the shadows, any hardship I had faced paled into utter insignificance.
“It definitely had an effect on my love life. Let’s just say I am getting a lot more interest these days. I do look better than I did 13 years ago, and maybe it is partly to do with my outlook – my self-esteem is better.
“I am always going to be Jamie Hull 2.0 which is a vast difference to Jamie 1.0.
“I used to find it easier to meet girls and now it is a bit more challenging. But I am more confident about the future, I have dated and I am not so concerned now.
“But for years I was very concerned. I was concerned about life’s fundamental questions – will I meet someone and settle? Will I perhaps work for a company?
“Will they want to take me on? Will I succeed with a social network?
“It took me three years to heal physically and it took me five years to heal mentally and accept it, until I was waking up in the morning with more of a spring in my step.”
Now he hopes to inspire others.
Jamie explains: “Now I am back to my former self, I am highly motivated.
“I am not a superman, I am just a normal flesh and blood being, but I am pretty disciplined and that is what helped carry me through the early years.
“It would have been very easy to throw the towel in and wither.
“In all honesty in the early years there were real low points where I did not want to survive, I just wanted to move on.
“I genuinely contemplated suicide. But in reflection I understand why that was.
“But with the passing of time, subsequent surgeries and the growth of inner confidence, self-esteem and a new-found belief in Jamie Hull 2.0 is what made me know I could build a new life.
“I started to have a new faith and grow from there and that is what I have been doing ever since.
“I am in a good place now and fingers crossed I will make it to senior ranks in life.
“I want to have my adventures and I want to hopefully inspire others and send my message that with great will and determination we can overcome great obstacles.
“You just have to believe in yourself.”