By Jack Fincher
Updated July 27, 1981 12:00 PM

It was Thanksgiving Day, 1961. Merrill Womach, piloting his twin-engine Piper, took off from a small airfield in Oregon, homeward bound for Spokane. Suddenly, a few hundred feet above the trees, both engines quit. The powerless aircraft quickly lost altitude, then plowed like a pinwheel through the dense evergreens. More than 100 gallons of aviation gas exploded.

Somehow in the inferno Womach survived, and, though horribly burned, he is grateful for that. Womach, in fact, attributes his survival to more than mere luck. “I believe it was all part of God’s plan,” he now reflects, citing a remarkable sequence of events that occurred the instant of impact.

First, he was momentarily knocked unconscious so that his closed eyes were spared a direct blast of withering heat, which would have meant permanent blindness. Then, in being pitched forward, his arms flew up and, Womach theorizes, his chin slumped onto his chest, trapping a pocket of life-sustaining air in the folds of his jacket. With the strength born of desperation, he somehow ripped free of his jammed seat belt to escape and stagger through the snow to a highway, where he was found by two men who’d seen his plane go down.

On the race to the hospital he startled his fast-driving benefactors with a song of celebration. “My doctor says most people burned as badly as I was die from shock,” Womach notes. “I didn’t, I sang. That kept me awake. That kept me alive.”

Today, at 54, his strong, four-octave tenor voice still sings in praise of the Lord. As a gospel performer he does 125 concerts in all parts of the country and must turn down many more invitations for lack of time. “I feel I have a message that people need and want to hear,” he says, “a message Merrill Womach was meant to deliver.”

At the time of his accident he was a handsome young husband, the father of three and already a successful musician and businessman. A salesman’s son, Womach graduated from Northwest Ministerial College near Seattle before serving as assistant pastor and director of music and Christian education at the Fourth Presbyterian Church in Spokane. In 1958 he started his own business, confidently named National Music Service, by recording his spiritual songs and building two primitive music systems which he leased to funeral parlors. As he expected, the business soon expanded beyond his hometown, and he regularly flew his plane to cover the territory and reach concert dates.

And then the crash, the brutal disfigurement, the years of unspeakable pain in reconstructive surgery. “I looked exactly like a marshmallow that had been dropped in a campfire,” Womach recalls. From the first he worried that others would be repulsed by his appearance. A first test came only two weeks after his first hospitalization, when he was invited to sing at his church. “His face was gone,” wife Virginia later wrote in her book, Tested by Fire. “In its place was sewn a sheet of grafted skin with appropriate gaps through which to breathe and speak.” His audience was visibly shaken as it rose in standing ovation.

With the courageous support of his family, Womach rebuilt his life and livelihood. Today his recording business boasts an elaborate electronics plant, 100 or so employees and revenues in “the double-digit millions,” he says. The company’s music library of more than 2,000 tapes, most of them sung by him, serves more than 5,000 customers in all parts of the country. In addition, he has cut 14 albums sold in Christian bookstores. But the most telling sign of Womach’s total recovery is his plan to purchase next month—and to fly—a Jetprop Commander.

With their children grown, Merrill and Virginia Womach divorced last year. “We’re still good friends, but we’re human, with frailties and the rest,” he says. Everything that has happened, he remains convinced, was meant to be—especially what he sees as his enlarged ministry through his singing and speaking tours. “God gave me the ability to communicate with my voice,” Womach says. “After all, there are a lot of people out there with scars—and some of those scars you cannot see.”