School chief has brush with death

Wednesday, August 6, 2003

Editor's note: Dan Steska was superintendent of the Cape Girardeau School District from 1999 to 2002.

By Rebecca Loda ~ The (Bloomington, Ill.) Pantagraph

NORMAL, Ill. -- Dan Steska traveled to Mexico last month to improve his Spanish. He didn't expect to change his life.

But the local school superintendent has a new perspective on life after nearly drowning during a rafting trip on which another traveler died.

"It has reminded me how fragile our lives are and how helpless we are in those situations," Steska said. "It's also a very humbling experience when you can't control your destiny."

He and his wife, Sarah, a teacher at Brigham Elementary School, traveled to Cuernavaca for a weeklong Spanish class. "At the end of the course, we decided to take a raft trip down a river through a rain forest," Steska said.

Seven tourists -- all Americans -- and three guides rode on two rafts.

The rafters experienced difficulty navigating the river with rafts capsizing and guides falling out of the raft.

One of the guides fell out of the other raft early on. Before reaching a difficult area -- where the groups were supposed to pull to the side and carry the rafts on land -- that raft capsized.

Now in the water, Steska yelled to his wife, who said she was OK and that he should help the others.

"I turned around toward them, and immediately I was pulled under," he said. "You immediately lose total control. I was drinking water and gasping for breath. ... I really felt like this may be the end, because I was becoming exhausted.

'Just give up'

"Part of my mind said, 'Just give up,' but my reflexes kept fighting for breath and life."

A strong current tossed him like a rag in a washing machine. The ordeal lasted several minutes. Steska blacked out momentarily.

Over and over in his mind, he kept hearing, "Usted es mi vida," or "You are my life."

"It was a reflection on my total dependency on God," he said. "I could not help myself."

Eventually, he got into a cove and dragged himself onto a rock. Another of the rafters was not so fortunate and drowned.

Before returning from Mexico, the Steskas tried to support and comfort the victim's family. His own perspective has changed.

"It's helped me look at life in a more sober and reflective way by giving me a perspective of what's important," he said. "It's given me a desire to use the time that I have left in a meaningful way. ... I don't know how long that perspective will last, but I hope it's permanent."

When he came home, he immediately sold a motorcycle he recently purchased.

"I just felt it was the wise thing to do after this near-death experience," he said. "I didn't want to relive that in another way, for my sake and my family's sake."

He has been praying more and focusing on making decisions based on what's really important instead of what may be "temporarily appealing."

"I think it will lessen the impact of the many daily management frustrations, similar to what we all encounter in our jobs," he said. "I also hope it will enhance my relationship with our staff and community by helping me focus on what's really important for the welfare of people, not simply because it's my job, but because it's in the best interest of other human beings."

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