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A couple survived a plane crash with burns that would change their lives – but not their love for each other

In the weeks before Valentine's Day, CBS News featured stories about love that blossomed despite unimaginable odds. This is the final story in a series we call Love, Against All Odds.

Stephanie Nielson knew her husband Christian was the one from the first moment the two met. It was 2000, and she was just 18 years old when Christian, then 21, walked into her father's construction company, where she was working while attending school. 

"He walked in the door to come and sell cellphones, and I immediately felt very attracted to Christian — and I felt like there was something there, and it was obvious for me," she told CBS News.

"I was flirting," he said. "I was laying it on pretty hard. I asked her out on a date and we went out that week. And then it moved really fast after that."

The two got married within months — "That was March, and we married in December of that year," she said — and the couple had four children over the next eight years. They were living in Arizona, where Christian was working for Boeing and pursuing his pilot's license; she was a stay-at-home parent who wrote a popular blog, The NieNie Dialogues

They were still deeply in love as they boarded a small plane, owned and co-piloted by Doug Kinneard, for a trip from Christian's family's New Mexico ranch to their home. It was Aug. 16, 2008, just a week after the Nielsons' oldest child, Claire, now 22, had started first grade and their second daughter, Jane, now 21, entered kindergarten. 

Shortly after takeoff, that freshly refueled Cessna hit power lines and crashed, its full tanks stoking a conflagration. All three managed to crawl from the burning wreckage. Kinneard wouldn't survive.

50 surgeries over the years

Stephanie had burns over 83% of her body, and she spent months in a medically induced coma. She emerged with disfiguring injuries. "This happened in August and I remember November, waking up sometime in November," she said.

Christian, whose burns spread across 40% of his body, was also lucky to survive. 

She was 27. He was 29.

Stephanie and Christian Nielson
Stephanie and Christian Nielson Courtesy Stephanie Nielson

The two would undergo more than 50 surgeries over the years, including skin grafts, and the kinds of physical changes — "Lots of changes to our bodies and appearances," he said — and challenges that would test many marriages.

"Most people maybe get old together. We got old really fast," he said.

While Stephanie and Christian were in the Arizona Burn Center, Stephanie's sisters came to Arizona, picked up the kids, brought them back to Utah and got the two oldest enrolled in school there, trying to give them as normal a life as they could.

Their families provided help and stability for their children, and in doing so, gave the couple time and space to heal — even when it wasn't clear either would survive.

"We got better and ended up moving back to Utah and reuniting with the kids and still having that family support. All along the way we've had incredible family support," she said.

Love of family — and community

Stephanie and Christian, who now live in North Carolina, where Christian is a developer of a cattle-focused software company, said they couldn't have survived the crash without the love of their families – and their faith.

"This story is a love story between us, but it's really a love story between family. It's a story of how family really picked up pieces when the worst happened," she said.

Both Stephanie and Christian come from large families — her, one of eight and him, one of 11. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the couple said they relied on their faith and their faith community after the crash. The family received prayer and support while they were recovering. 

"Marriage and family is just part of the happiest experiences that we grew up knowing," she said. Sharing that common experience — both Stephanie's and Christian's parents are still married — helped bring them together, they said, and propelled them quickly into marriage.

"It seems like it was so fast, but to us, it was like, we can't get this going fast enough! It just felt right, and it was a perfect match," she said. "I think, when you know you know. That's how I tell people. When you know, you know — and we knew."

Stephanie and Christian Nielson Courtesy Stephanie Nielson

They'd always wanted a big family of their own, and were overjoyed when she got pregnant with their first child just three months after their wedding. 

They said they now know why they felt called to have children quickly. "We just kept having babies, and it felt right," she said.

Their fifth child, Charlotte, was born four years after the crash. They'd originally planned on having more, she said, but it was harder after the accident.

"Five is a nice family. And as time goes on, and we live, and the world is crazy, we're like, five was great. Any more than that, I think would have been hard," she said.

Their children will have siblings to rely on — just as their siblings handled things after the crash. 

The community of readers of Stephanie's blog, which she had written since 2005 and still posts, also bolstered the family. Blog readers came together, raised money and sent well-wishes to the family. She said fundraisers and financial help came from friends and strangers worldwide — and along with their insurance, their communities help kept them afloat in the year after the crash.

"There was this inpouring of faith and prayers — of people that we didn't know, that were of different religious or faith traditions, or none at all — who felt what we were feeling and outside looking in, wanted to help. It was a testament of the goodness of all God's children on Earth," he said.

Love for each other

Stephanie said their shared faith helped them get through some of the darkest days when she was in her hospital bed, in terrible pain and couldn't figure out how to connect with her husband.

"I just was not in a good place. I was scared a lot. It took us a little while to figure out, what we were going to do, and it was always prayer and faith together, holding hands, we're going to make it together. We're going to do this together. And that was something that really put our relationship on a different level," she said.

And that faith, and their relationship, have carried them through other difficult times in their lives.

"The accident's been hard, but it's not been the hardest thing. We've had other struggles since … but we always kind of say, we've kind of done worse, we can get through this," she said.

They also said they hope their five children see those lessons — that it's about the core of their relationship, not their appearances.

Christian and Stephanie Nielson with their children, clockwise from right, Claire, Jane, Charlotte, Nicholas and Oliver Courtesy Stephanie Nielson

"Being able to see that two people can make things work even when hard things happen, that marriages can still last, that Mom and Dad can still love each other … we love that they see that in us, we love each other in our bodies and all the things that are imperfect and whatever it is — we want them to see that it's easier together, it's easier to go through these things when you're on the same page and you're together," she said.

The physical changes, while hard, were the least part of it.

"Most of my body is skin grafts. It's totally different; it's not the same body, I've got scars everywhere and Christian's got his share of scars. But that's kind of one of those beautiful things that have connected us, that we share the same scars — inside, and outside," she said.

He said they've become more emotionally resilient, an outcome of the tragedy — and it's hard to imagine not having a confidante and a partner to rely on.

"Stephanie and I have been on both ends of that. There's been nights where I've been just really, really low and Stephanie was the strong one to keep me grounded — and then vice versa," he said.

They've been married for 23 years, and this year will mark 16 years since the accident, twice as long as they were married before it. Ultimately, there's one thing they wanted to say about relationships, and about love. 

"Yes — it's easier together," she said.

"I wish I had a really articulate thing to convey," he said, "but that's probably it."

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