Pianist's near-death experience is story behind the music at Asheville Regional Airport

    Mike Andersen, who survived a serious car crash in 2003, plays piano 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. every Thursday at Asheville Regional Airport. (Photo credit: WLOS staff)

    At the place where journeys begin and end in the mountains, Mike Andersen holds the keys to an unexpected conversation piece.

    He plays piano 11:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. every Thursday at Asheville Regional Airport, and passengers take notice on the way to claim their baggage.

    "The first thing I heard was his music," said William Rosario, of New York City. "We don't have this in New York. So, coming into an airport where they're playing live music ..."

    "I didn't even know it was a real piano until I turned the corner," fellow flyer and New Yorker Kira Tsmas said. "It just sounds really authentic and great."

    "I love playing for people," said Andersen, who elevates the terminal into a soaring music hall. "I like to play based on feelings or just try to create a mood."

    Andersen draws an audience from all over the map.

    "All the genres. I always tell people I play classical, rock, pop, jazz," he said. "But no covers."

    While most people passing by admire what he plays, Rosario took notice of how he plays.

    Andersen injured his left arm years ago, which altered the way he tickles the ivories.

    "I didn't notice until I walked around. I don't know if he's disabled," Rosario said.

    In summer 2003, Andersen found new musical life after a near-death experience in Florida.

    "Because I was already driven to play music, and, once the accident happened, I wanted to really play it even more," Andersen said.

    Andersen was driving on Highway 20 when his car was smashed beyond recognition.

    "I fell asleep at the wheel, went under an oncoming semi-truck trailer," he recalled. "I woke up three days after the wreck in an ambulance being transported from the hospital in Tallahassee."

    Even while in the hospital, Andersen kept playing piano. He has had 15 surgeries since the crash.

    "Like, I've had people with similar injuries be like, 'I play piano like that, too,'" Andersen said.

    "They put part of my stomach on my elbow, and that helped pad it," Andersen said, describing one procedure.

    He believes the physical limitations that hold many people back are mostly mental barriers.

    "You can keep doing what you want to do," Andersen stressed. "Things that might actually stand in your way don't actually play much of a role in it."

    At the airport, most passengers have no idea about his life journey.

    "I think it's very inspiring,"Tsmas said. "It's a real nice warm welcome to Asheville."

    "Just the talent is amazing," Rosario marveled. "I think it's a great achievement that the power of the mind can still come back and be that resilient,"

    The power of music gives wings to a comeback story that's still playing out.

    "I love improvising, I love to make up the song as I go along," Andersen said. "Happy to be alive."

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