SI Flashback: Unbreakable Bond
Three adult siblings will sit in a spectator box this Saturday at Churchill Downs to watch the Kentucky Derby. They will dress for the occasion, bet foolishly on slow horses and surely sip a mint julep or two. Come late afternoon, when the Downs' fabled twin spires cast shadows across the sandy loam of the track, they will cheer in full throat for
Late on the afternoon of July 19, 1989, United Airlines Flight 232--a McDonnell Douglas DC-10 bound from Denver to Chicago with 296 passengers and crew--suffered what the National Transportation Safety Board called "a catastrophic failure" of an engine, breaking into pieces as it crashed-landed at Sioux Gateway Airport in Sioux City, Iowa, and spilling into a cornfield.
The crash killed 112 of the people onboard. Melissa and Travis were helped from the wreckage by fellow passenger
On the ground Matz reunited Melissa and Travis with Jody, who had been sitting two rows in front of his siblings. "Run away," Matz told the kids at the jagged opening where the fuselage had been cleaved, "and don't look back." Once outside, Matz and his girlfriend,
"They let us stay children that day," says Melissa (Roth) Radcliffe, now 29 and the mother of two. "They made us trust that everything would be all right, and then they stayed with us. My memories are of being in a crash, then eating ice cream and watching television. I remember nothing traumatic. That's because of Michael and D.D."
Leslie Roth, the kids' mother, says, "Michael treated our children as if they were his children. They might have been forced to grow up in that moment, but Michael didn't let that happen."
On a warm April afternoon, less than three weeks before the Kentucky Derby, Matz, now 55, sat at his desk in a spartan tack room in his barn at Delaware Park in Wilmington. He and D.D. never sought celebrity from their survival or heroism, even as movies were made and books were written. "We never saw the crash as our 15 minutes of fame," says D.D. They competed in a horse show a week after the crash and returned home to Collegeville, Pa., to find their luggage from 232 had been returned. "In body bags, smelling like jet fuel," says Michael. "We cleaned everything up and got on with our lives."
It isn't that Matz doesn't have memories. He can tell the riveting story of hearing a baby's cry, walking back into the wreckage and holding frayed electrical cables out of the way so that Schemmel could carry 11-month-old
Yet it is difficult to hide in a spotlight. After winning a silver medal in team show jumping at the 1996 Olympics, Matz was elected by a panel of team captains to carry the U.S. flag at the closing ceremonies largely because of what had transpired seven years earlier. "I told the people in the room that Michael was a great athlete and a great Olympian," says '96 equestrian captain
Now Barbaro brings Matz back to center stage. The horse is a powerful dark bay who is unbeaten in five career races and whose stalking victory in the April 1 Florida Derby has made him one of the favorites at Churchill Downs.
Matz is fighting history. Barbaro hasn't run since winning the Florida Derby in a stretch duel with the speedy
Barbaro was foaled only in late April 2003, didn't run a race until last October and, after competing three times on turf (as the son of renowned turf sire
It is always a struggle to get a good 3-year-old to Churchill Downs, but Matz had a trying winter in other ways as well. On Dec. 16 D.D., 43, was found to have a form of thyroid cancer; she underwent surgery on Jan. 9 and has been told by her doctors that she is cancer-free. "A lot of people helped us through that time," says Michael. The couple has four children, ages three to nine. (Michael has two grown children from a previous marriage.) Seventeen years after Flight 232 the cancer episode has been another reminder of the value of every day of life.
The presence of the Roth siblings at Churchill Downs will reinforce that message. In 1996 most of the family attended a post-Olympic celebration for Matz. He has not seen the Roths since then, but
They are vibrant, successful adults, helped along one day by two strangers in a cornfield. "I know we feel a connection to Michael and D.D," says Melissa. "They really are a part of us."
Together on Saturday they will pull for a horse. "I hope he wins," says Travis, once a scared little boy on a falling airplane. "But to be honest, it doesn't really matter. Michael's life was a success a long time ago."