Harrison County

‘I saw the white light.’ Coast firefighter gives up motorcycle after escaping death.

Riding motorcycles has been a hobby and passion for Gulfport firefighter Mark Hilley for more than 40 years.

In fact, he shared his love for the ride with his 14-year-old daughter, Natalie.

Now, though, Hilley says he’ll never hop on one again.

May 3 was a sunny Friday afternoon. Hilley asked Natalie to go for a ride after she got out of school — a normal trip for the two.

“I never ride in bad weather and never ride when it’s wet. I don’t take the main highways and I drive very slow,” Hilley said. “It was a pretty day.”

They weren’t even two miles from home when Hilley rounded a curve.

“All I remember is gravel and waking up in a helicopter going to USA (hospital in Mobile),” he said.

‘I’m the one that’s usually helping people’

Hilley, a U.S. Marine veteran, didn’t know it at the time, but he suffered severe injuries in the crash that resulted in him being airlifted to Mobile for treatment. His right lung had completely collapsed. He suffered nine broken ribs, lacerated kidneys, liver and spleen, and a broken wrist.

Natalie was checked out but was released with minor injuries.

Hilley has three jobs in public service. He’s a full-time district chief for the Gulfport Fire Department. He also works for the Harrison County Fire Service and is a paramedic.

“I’m the one that’s usually helping people,” Hilley said. “I’ve been a fireman for 20 years. It’s weird being on the other end of it. When I first got there, I could see the monitor above me. My heart rate during the first night was 82/40. If it gets down in the 60s, you’re dead.”

At one point in the ICU, Hilley thought he died.

A higher power

“I saw the white light. All the pain went away. I had no guilt I had no remorse and no sadness. All the pain faded,” Hilley said. “I realize now it was all the medication that eased my pain, but when that happened, I thought, ‘Well, this must be death, I’m at peace.’”

He admits he’s not one to ‘preach from a pulpit’ when it comes to religion, but Hilley says he remembers hearing an omniscient voice during his hospital stay.

“I didn’t see God but I believe he talked to me, in my mind and in my heart, I believe he did,” Hilley said. “He didn’t say the typical thing ‘I’m not done with you, You have more life to live.’ He said ‘Get up, you have a family to take care of.’ That is life changing.”

That’s when Hilley said he heard another voice, one that he’s known for years.

“I woke up and I heard my wife’s voice. I knew I was alive,” He said. His wife, Carla, stayed by his side every day. “The first night she slept on the floor next to my bed because ICU was so crowded. There was no room. They let her make a pallet on the floor next to me. She’s never left my side since the accident.”

‘I do it for my family.’

Three weeks in a hospital bed gave Hilley a lot of time to think about life, and especially his wife and two children.

Having three jobs means Hilley can work up to 100 hours some weeks.

“I do it for my family,” he said. “This has caused me to really reevaluate my priorities. I won’t go another day without letting my family know how much they mean to me.”

After the accident, Hilley’s own family stepped in to help him, the man who spends most of his time helping others. Hilley’s sister, Lisa Fisher of Tennessee, made a GoFundMe account to help with medical expenses.

“Mark is a hardworking man with a kind heart,” Fisher wrote in the GoFundMe description. “He would give the shirt off his back to anyone in need.”

When Hilley saw the list of people starting to donate to his fund, he said he became overwhelmed by the support and kindness he saw from his friends and family and from complete strangers.

“It absolutely humbles me that people would care about me,” he said. “I’m nothing special. I’m just a man who gets up for work everyday to take care of his family. This is really going to help.”

Although Hilley has benefits and sick leave built up through Gulfport fire, he said his income will be significantly reduced as bills begin to come in. Hilley has only been with Harrison County for a year and his part-time job with American Medical Response doesn’t provide benefits. Even with insurance, he’ll be facing hefty medical bills.

“We were home for a week and got two bills in the mail. One was for $31,000 for the flight that took me to USA (hospital), the other $180,000 from the hospital ... and that’s not all of it,” Hilley said.

A break from the bike

About $4,000 has been raised on GoFundMe since the wreck. Hilley promised that the donations will not be in vain.

“I am the most stubborn, determined person you’ll ever meet,” Hilley said. “I will get up every day and take these steps, no matter how much it hurts. I’m going to get back in shape, get strong, get back to work and take care of my family. I will never waste another day.”

As for his days on the back of a motorcycle, those are now in the past.

“I rode for 41 years. I’ll never get on a motorcycle ever again,” Hilley said. “I’ll miss it, God I’ll miss it, but I’m not willing to take a chance with my life.

“My daughter loves motorcycles because of me. It was our special time, but my love of motorcycles could have potentially killed us both.”

Hilley said he’s looking forward toward recovery.

“My body is weak and tired but every day I get up and walk and walk a little further,” he said. “I started with walking from the bed to the wall, then the bed to the hallway. Now I do laps. I’m making myself get stronger because I have a family to provide for. I won’t stop until I can do that.”

Alyssa Newton is an award-winning multimedia journalist with a background in television, radio and print. She’s originally from Dothan, Alabama and has a journalism degree from the University of South Alabama in Mobile. Her passion lies in storytelling, news, sports and a strong espresso.