Austin Hatch knows what it’s like to lose the people he loves most in the world.
It’s happened to him — twice.
In September 2003, Austin, who appears on People Icons: Heroes & Survivors on Tuesday, March 14, at 10 p.m. ET on ABC., lost his mother and two siblings in a plane crash in Fort Wayne, Indiana, that he and his father survived. And in June 2011, he was the lone survivor of another plane crash in Charlevoix, Michigan that killed his father, Stephen, 46, an anesthesiologist, and stepmother, Kim. (His labradoodle, Brady, escaped injury though another dog perished in the accident.)
The devastation he experienced makes him grateful for the loved ones he still has in his life — which includes his girlfriend of two years, Abby Cole, whom he plans to marry after he graduates next year.
“I’m in love,” says Austin, 22, a junior organizational studies major at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor who grew up in Fort Wayne.
The depth of his feelings for Abby, a former volleyball player at the University of Michigan, makes him him appreciate even more all that his father went through trying to rebuild his life after the deaths of his wife and two of his children, he says.
- Tune in to People Icons: Heroes & Survivors on Tuesday, March 14, at 10 p.m. ET on ABC for more on these and other inspiring stories.
“I can’t imagine losing Abigail now,” he tells PEOPLE. “We’ve been together for two and a half years and he was with my mom for over 20.”
But his father did find happiness again with Kim, whom he married and who later adopted Austin. She made sure he felt welcome in their new family, which included three children from her first marriage, he says.
“She said, ‘Austin, I’m not gonna replace your mother. But I’m just gonna do my best to honor her by how I love you and I take care of you..because I know that’s what she’d want me to do if she could talk to me,’ ” he says.
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Austin had to reshape his dreams after the second crash. Nine days prior to the incident, he had been offered a full basketball scholarship to the University of Michigan. After his miraculous recovery, he joined the team in the summer of 2014 but in April 2015 he decided to become a student assistant instead, which allowed him to keep his scholarship and focus more on his studies.
Abby has helped with that transition and with coping with all the losses in his life, he says.
“She’s made me grow in my faith and made me a better man,” he says. “My faith has been tested a little bit… I don’t think God made it happen [the two crashes] but he let it happen…But it’s like, if he stopped every bad thing from happening, what would the world be like?”
Today, his dreams for the future are simple ones.
“Ultimately my goal in life is to be a great husband and a great father and provide for my family,” says Austin, who gives inspirational speeches about his ordeal.
And he has no doubt Abby is the woman he will build his future with, he says.
How he treats her is yet another legacy from his father, he says.
“My dad taught me how to take care of a woman, how to love a woman, how to love my family,” he says. “He taught me to do that by showing me how he did it every day.”