Tim Layden: Unbreakable bond - Sports Illustrated

SI Flashback: Unbreakable Bond

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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 Barbaro, a tall, long-bodied 3-year-old colt to whom they are linked by a tether that reaches back 17 years.

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. Jody Roth was 14, his sister Melissa 12 and their brother Travis 9. They were the children of a college professor and a junior high school teacher, traveling from their home in Laramie, Wyo., to visit their grandparents in Glens Falls, N.Y.

The crash killed 112 of the people onboard. Melissa and Travis were helped from the wreckage by fellow passenger Michael Matz, then 38 and a world-class equestrian rider, who today trains Barbaro. At the time of the engine failure, Matz had been talking to Travis about the in-flight video they were watching, which chronicled the 1989 Triple Crown races between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. "I didn't know anything about horse racing," recalls Travis. "He seemed like he knew a lot." As the pilot warned of an impending rough landing, Matz played cards with Travis to keep him calm.

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, D.D. Alexander (now his wife), took care of the three Roth children for more than 12 hours, shielding the kids from the horrors of the crash until their mother arrived.

"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."

Jerry Schemmel, then deputy commissioner of the Continental Basketball Association and now play-by-play announcer for the Denver Nuggets, was also on Flight 232. "I remember that Michael was calm, businesslike and in no way trying to save himself," Schemmel says. "As far as the scene, I think it would have been real damaging to those children to see some of the things many of us saw. I still have nightmares. I had one just the other night. Believe me, it remains vivid in your mind."

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 Sabrina Michaelson to safety. But he summons those memories only when prompted. "We were lucky to get out. I know that," he says. "It was a bad time. A lot of people died. I try to forget about it."

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 Robert Dover, who spoke on Matz's behalf. "But I also told them that he was a hero."

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 Sharp Humor, and not since Needles did it 50 years ago has a horse won the Kentucky Derby after a layoff or five or more weeks. But Barbaro is Matz's best horse since he started training thoroughbreds a year after the '96 Olympics, and he has been patient from the start.

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 Dynaformer), didn't race on dirt until February. He has never raced with fewer than 34 days between starts. Standing nearly 17 hands high, Barbaro is so powerful and rambunctious that Matz has hesitated to sit on his back. Yet in full flight the colt is a picture of grace. "He's so smooth, you could sit up on him and drink a cup of tea," says Kim Brette, whose husband, Peter, is Matz's assistant and Barbaro's exercise rider. Barbaro's long, gathering stride should be a potent weapon in a race filled with early speed. "He doesn't mind getting caught behind horses, he doesn't mind getting dirt in his face," says Matz. "And I feel real confident about the [11/4-mile] distance factor."

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 Leslie and her husband, Don, have stayed in touch with him and D.D., exchanging letters and Christmas cards. Jody, 31, a financial planner, lives in Fort Collins, Colo., with his wife and daughter. Melissa, who has an engineering degree from Purdue, lives in Denver with her family. Travis, 26, recently earned his Masters in water resources at the University of Wyoming (where Don is dean of the graduate school).

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."

Issue date: May 8, 2006