Sixteen years ago on November 8, 1994, Scott and Janet Willis were traveling outside Milwaukee, Wisconsin with the six youngest of their nine children. Scott was a pastor at the Parkwood Baptist Church in the Mt. Greenwood neighborhood on Chicago’s Far Southwest Side and Janet schooled the six younger children at their home on the second story of the church. In an instant their lives were forever changed as a piece of metal debris on the road punctured their gas tank and their minivan erupted in flames. The couple barely escaped with their lives as the inferno blazed throughout the van, instantly killing five of the children still buckled in their seats (Joe, Sam, Hank, Elizabeth, and Peter, ages 11 years to 6 weeks). Thirteen year old, Ben escaped the burning van but later died at the hospital with third degree burns over 90% of his body.
This horrific tragedy would throw this Chicago pastor and his family into the international spotlight and eventually lead to the imprisonment of former Illinois Governor George Ryan. The deaths of the Willis children came to symbolize the infamous licenses-for-bribes political scandal during Ryan’s tenure as Secretary of State before his election as Governor in 1999.
A year after the accident, the Willis’ bravely spoke before the Wheaton College chapel on November 17, 1995, to share their personal story of tragedy and testimony of faith. In subsequent years, they moved to Tennessee in 2004 and have been blessed with 25 grandchildren from their surviving three older children.