Against All Odds
Local Developer, Entrepreneur Brings Life to Air Park
By Denise Jones
Featured in The Manning Times, October 4, 2001.
Palmetto Air Plantation developer, Joe Witt, in front of his new residential air park off US 301 and I-95 in Clarendon County.
That Fateful Day
"I had flown with Bobby for many years," he begins. "We landed at a friend's place over in Calhoun County. There was an ultralight there." An ultralight, Witt says, is a very lightweight aircraft with a limited amount of engine power that is very limited in its abilities. Often, the aircraft are homemade from kits."It's a non-regulated, non-certified, experimental aircraft," he said. But after some gentle nudging from friends, Witt decided to try it out. "I just did something I didn't have any business doing," he said. "I didn't have any training. It was late March. It was windy. A first time flight. "All I did was take off, got spun around, got scared, immediately tried to land and through my own error and the wind, ... just spun it in [to the ground] from about 125 feet. "With his friends looking on from the other end of the runway, Witt crashed feet first into the ground. He remembers "pretty much everything" about what happened next. But as Witt begins to recall being "cut from the aircraft," he pauses to gather his thoughts. It becomes clear that the memories are painful. "I remember them cutting me out. I remember being loaded into the helicopter, ... and I knew if I was being put in the helicopter that it was bad," he said. Witt sustained 15 fractures. He broke his back, his pelvis, both ankles. "I wasn't supposed to walk," he said. "I wasn't supposed to live." Witt remembers Dr. Deanna Constable, a doctor at Palmetto Richland Memorial Hospital, telling him that as she performed some primary orthopedic work. "Someone commented, 'You really don't need to do all this.' And she said, 'Oh yeah. You might not think so, but I'm going to put him back together,' " Witt said. Witt was hospitalized for a total of six weeks, including 30 days of physical therapy. "I was there where I could be taken care of if something went wrong, but I was only getting an hour of therapy a day," Witt said. "I was lying there for 22 hours a day and listening to the wrong stuff. And so, ... I just said I'm going home."
His determination to return home to Manning came from waking up to find his hospital room filled with family and friends, flowers, and cards and letters from well-wishers, many of whom he didn't even know. "I just drew off of that," he said. "Against all odds and against almost everybody's wishes, I came home. It was grueling. It was just awful." But Witt said he had "a very special person," Phyllis Watford, who took care of him at home and helped him to recover. "For months, Phyllis worked all day and then cared for me at night, and made certain I did my daily therapy," Witt said. "She brought me back to life. She made me get well. Phyllis was just part of the blessing," he said. "The average person would have left. I know God played a part in helping her to help me." When I came home, I couldn't move. I literally could not turn myself over in the bed," he said. "I had to put my airport project on hold." But 18 months - and nine surgeries - later, Witt was moving around on heavy equipment, driven to complete his development. "Without any doubt and with all certainty, in retrospect, I did the right thing," he said. "There's some that have questioned that, the coming home." Still wheelchair bound, Witt was put into an airplane and took a short flight with Jonte. Though some might think it strange for them to fly so soon after the accident, Jonte says, "If a family member was killed in a car crash, you'd still drive to the funeral, wouldn't you? ... When he gets it in his mind to do something, he's going to do it," Jonte said of Witt. "He's just the kind of fellow that's learned, you need only to start a project and things will be revealed to you." Jonte says he's been so inspired by his friend that he dedicated his book, The Same Old Lie, a collection of stories from various people, to him. Witt calls the accident a "big turning point" in his life. "I was 38 years old; I was wide open," he recalls. "I had a big boat at the beach, an airplane; I was doing a development; business was thriving. I had good friends. I went from that to zero in a split second. Boom. I certainly didn't have my spiritual life on track [before the crash]," he said. "Too much emphasis on 'stuff' instead of the real important things in life, which are the most simple: like caring about one another. Stuff can come and go." Likewise, Jonte says the accident had an impact on his life. "If you witness something like that, it does put things in perspective," he said. "We take things for granted."
Developing a Dream
The spark quickly returns to his eyes when Witt begins talking about Palmetto Air Plantation. "I'll be the first to admit the selfishness in it," he says half-laughing. "It will allow me to fulfill my dream." But the development also will bring at least 45 new families into the area, he said. A typical mix of about 50 percent working families and 50 percent retired folks that he describes as "movers and shakers." The purpose of the air park is to "develop a community for aviation enthusiasts that promotes peaceful living, protects investments, provides the use of a private, one-way gated entrance and Common Areas for homeowners." The kind of people Witt believes the air park will attract are community- and civic-minded people who will contribute to the quality of life in Clarendon. "One lot's already been sold, and except for a few final details, everything's in place for completion," Witt said. The development is centered around a FAA-approved lighted runway, 150 feet by 3,720 feet. To promote the development off the ground, Witt and others are organizing a fly-in, slated for this weekend. The event includes a free lunch for those who fly in and golf, skeet shoot, or a lake tour. "I want to showcase the county," Witt said. "It's designed to attract the full gamut of flyers with all the activities. But there are no high-pressure sales though," Witt adds, "simply an opportunity for folks to come see the air park and experience all the wonderful things Clarendon County has to offer."
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