When Modestan Joe Luke Jr. opened his eyes, he was looking at the stars.
Then he said a prayer.
"Thank you, Jesus," he said, amazed to be alive, as the first drops of blood from the swelling gash on his face started stinging his eyes.
Within seconds he heard them -- the others on the bus, his friends and family, frantically trying to process the horror of what had just happened.
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"Everyone was moving," Luke said from his Utah hospital bed Friday, five days after a charter bus he was in crashed, killing nine people returning from a ski trip. "People were moaning and crying for help, screaming, 'What happened?' Everyone was calling out names, and no one was responding."
Just as he started to worry about his loved ones, Luke's breathing became short and labored. Sharp pains shot across his chest and torso, and within moments he realized he couldn't move his back.
He was lying face up on the icy mud. He knew he must have been ejected from his seat, but he had no memory of it.
The cold began to grip him. It was well below freezing and his jacket was somewhere in the wreckage. He couldn't see through the blood covering his face, but he heard people searching through the debris, trying to dig each other out from under slabs of what minutes earlier had been a charter bus.
The bus was carrying 51 passengers home to the Phoenix area from Colorado when it crashed on a remote two-lane highway in southern Utah. In addition to the deaths, two dozen were injured.
Despite the chaos that surrounded him and the mounting fear for himself and his close friends, Luke, who coaches football at Calvary Temple High, said he forced himself to keep his mind clear.
"You have to have presence of self," he said. "I knew that if it was God's will for me to die that night, I would have died on impact. But I didn't. That's when I knew I was going to make it."
Police officer becomes a coach
As a kid, Luke, 39, liked playing sports. As an adult, he loved being a coach.
When Luke, a New York City native who now calls Modesto his "true home," wasn't serving as a Department of Homeland Security police officer in the Bay Area, he was spending his spare time coaching kids in football leagues in the Modesto area.
"When you're a cop, you see so much crappy stuff on the streets of San Francisco and Oakland," Luke said. "There are so many kids that get lost. I had the energy, and I love the sport, so I started coaching."
Luke coached the Salida Steelers youth team for three years, then started coaching the football team at Calvary in 2002. In 2005, he left police work and started coaching full time.
He's served as defensive coordinator, assistant head coach and most recently as athletic director for Calvary. His team won its first Sac-Joaquin Section championship in 2006.
"He's really impacted a lot of young people and athletes over the years," said Glen Berteau, senior pastor at Calvary. "He's been a strong leader and a great example to young men."
When Luke moved to Modesto, he lived with close friends Sabre and Debbie Bowden, whom he had known since college. He maintained that friendship after the Bowdens moved to Phoenix in 1998.
This month, Luke and the Bowdens made the ritual trek by bus to Telluride, Colo., for a weekend of skiing. In its fourth year, the annual trip had grown to include more than 20 friends and five families. "We had three days of great skiing, and I made spaghetti on the last night for everyone," Luke said.
As they were about to leave, their trip coordinator told them their bus would be taking a different route to Phoenix because of weather-related road closures.
"When we were told it would add another four hours onto our trip, I had a bad feeling about it," Luke said from a hospital in Moab, Utah.
The weather changed from icy rain to snow several times over the first three hours of the trip. Luke said he was uncomfortable with how fast the bus was going, but he tried not to worry.
"I gave him the benefit of the doubt, because he was the driver," Luke said.
Luke said he was sitting next to James Baumer, 41, who seemed even more nervous. "(He) was really on edge, just bracing the entire time."
On a remote stretch of a Utah highway, Luke said, he saw through the windshield that the bus was coming quickly upon a sharp left turn. With growing concern, Luke realized the driver wasn't turning.
"He was just too late," Luke said.
Broken ribs, nerve damage
Then, with a grinding lurch, he felt the wheels slip beneath him.
"The bus started to roll to the right," Luke said. "We started to tumble, and I hit my head and my body maybe twice as it was happening, and then, just like a cut in a movie, I was outside on the ground."
Blinded by a face wound and immobilized by three broken ribs and nerve damage to his neck and shoulders, Luke, now more than 20 feet away from what was left of the bus, was forced to lie and wait for help.
As he waited, he spoke and prayed out loud to himself and several injured friends near him to help stay alert.
"I was having conversations with God," he said. "I was occupying my mind so I didn't think about my body."
Another bus came upon the group 20 minutes after the accident and helped the injured. Luke said it was more than an hour before rescue workers were on the scene.
Luke was loaded into an ambulance with Erica Sheffley, 16, a friend of Sabre Bowden's daughter Jasmine. Luke said she had been pinned under the bus when it came to a stop 40 feet below the road.
Erica's lung was punctured, and paramedics had to focus on her during the 1½-hour ride to Allen Medical Center in Moab.
Erica, along with Jasmine Bowden, 16; Debbie Bowden's mother, Pam Humphreys, 67, of Tucson; and Sabre Bowden's sister Carolyn Bowden died.
Members of the Bowden family remain in hospitals in Utah and Colorado; Debbie is in critical condition.
Luke said he misses his family in Modesto, but he doesn't want to return without knowing his friends' conditions.
While the investigation of the crash continues, Luke said he isn't angry at the driver of the bus. "I'm sure he feels terrible."
As he looks back on the ordeal, Luke credits his survival to a combination of courage, perseverance and what he's sure must be God's will.
"The human spirit is very, very strong. And it's even stronger when you have faith."
Bee staff writer Thomas Pardee can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2318.