After The Fall The crash of Swissair Flight 111 a year ago had an impact on people in sports, changing some of them forever--and one athlete not at all

Sept. 06, 1999
Sept. 06, 1999

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Sept. 6, 1999

After The Fall The crash of Swissair Flight 111 a year ago had an impact on people in sports, changing some of them forever--and one athlete not at all

All that's left now are the pieces. No account of that misty
September night tells the whole story; nothing is definitive
except the end. It was late and dark, and sleep had overtaken
most of St. Margaret's Bay, Nova Scotia, so who can say with
certainty what happened? One woman claims to have heard screams
and seen terrified faces at the jet's windows. Another says the
plane flew so low that it sent a massive black shadow grazing
over her yard--but no, she saw no faces as it pulled away with
engines screaming, and no, she never heard it fall. But one man,
who lives not far down the road, will tell you that he heard the
impact, six miles away, when the plane dropped into the sea. But
these are just jagged glimpses of a speeding truth. Fragments.

This is an article from the Sept. 6, 1999 issue Original Layout

Thirty-five miles northeast of the crash site sits the
CFB-Shearwater military base and a stark white structure known
as Hangar J. Inside, stored in hundreds of brown corrugated
boxes, lie most of the exploded remains of the McDonnell-Douglas
jet that, on Sept. 2, 1998, left New York City as Swissair
Flight 111. Outside, in a fenced lot, lies a wretched array of
battered engines, landing gear, blown tires and the jet's
twisted aluminum skin, all in varying degrees of decrepitude. A
forklift operator lifts a shard of wing and carts it to a scale
for weighing.

"We have more than a million pieces of the airplane," says Manny
Soberal, an investigator for Canada's Transportation Safety
Board. Workers are painstakingly rebuilding the cockpit and
galley area on a mold. The strongest clue to the cause of the
crash remains a radioed distress call describing smoke on the
flight deck. But both of the jet's black boxes ceased taping in
the flight's final moments. "We don't know what was going on in
that airplane in the last six minutes," Soberal says.

What came after the crash, though, is not in dispute. Alarms
wailed from fire stations all along the neighboring coast.
Dozens of fishing boats plowed into the dark waters to help in
the vain search for survivors. On the East Coast of the U.S.,
families of some passengers rushed to Kennedy Airport, where the
Geneva-bound flight had originated, to wait for word.

For many others, news of the crash didn't come until daybreak.
Former middleweight boxing champ Jake LaMotta was awakened in
Manhattan at 6 a.m. on Sept. 3 by a phone call from his lawyer.
They could hope for a miracle, the lawyer said. "Ohmygod,"
LaMotta said. He knew what the call meant. Your son is dead.

In Lyons, France, Eric Babolat, heir to one of the oldest names
in sports equipment, was roused by his clock radio. He lay in
bed until a voice broke in with a report from Nova Scotia. He
sat up and phoned a colleague still sleeping back in New York.
"Did my father get on that plane?" Babolat asked. Yes, the
colleague said. Babolat knew what the answer meant. Your father
is dead.

In Bucharest, Romania, professional tennis player Dinu Pescariu
was awakened at 9:30 a.m. by the jangling of his telephone. His
best friend told him the news and asked if that was the flight
Pescariu was supposed to have taken. Pescariu knew that the
question was actually a statement. You are alive.

Pescariu hung up. He sat for a moment and then stood up. He
walked across his apartment to the bathroom, bent over the sink
and lifted his face to the mirror. His heart began beating
faster. The pounding rose from his chest to his head and ears.
He broke into a sweat. His hands, then his whole body shook.
Pescariu couldn't take his eyes off himself. He stared at the
mirror, watching the man inside fall apart.

A plane crash is unique among human disasters because of its
images of extreme violence and helplessness, of fear escalating
to an unendurable pitch. How long did they know they were going
to die? Seconds? Minutes? We imagine the worst because the
physics demands it: When an object weighing 230 tons and flying
500 mph hurtles to the earth or into the sea from 33,000 feet,
nothing within it can remain intact. That the catastrophe will
reverberate through those left living is a given. Who, touched
by such an event, could fail to be transformed?

The crash of Flight 111 caused its share of soul-searching.
"It's the airplane I fly the most," No. 1 women's tennis player
Martina Hingis, who lived in Switzerland at the time, said the
next day. "It's terrible to know you don't have any chance up
there." But the person everyone at the U.S. Open wanted to hear
from that Thursday morning was another Swiss, 1992 Olympic gold
medalist Marc Rosset, a 6'7" underachiever not known for his
introspection. Rosset had been booked on the MD-11 jet but had
decided to stay in New York another day, unwittingly saving his
life and that of his coach, Pierre Simsolo. "When you are pretty
close, maybe you realize something," Rosset said. "Maybe I'm
going to try to enjoy more of my life. It's going to be a

Flight 111 carried a groundbreaking AIDS researcher, a Saudi
Arabian prince, a U.N. refugee commissioner, a Picasso painting,
$4 million in cash and 4 1/2 pounds of diamonds. The world of
sports appeared to be only lightly represented. LaMotta's son
and Rosset's near miss seemed the extent of it, and within a day
Flight 111 slipped off the sports pages and ESPN. Who knew? Lost
in the coverage, barely noted in the U.S. and barely mourned in
his own country, was the man who had come from nowhere to
achieve one of sport's quietest, most unlikely triumphs of 1998.

"This victory, it was one of the greatest moments in his life,"
Babolat says of his father, Pierre. On June 7, 1998, Pierre, 51,
sat with Eric in the stands of Stade Roland Garros in Paris,
cheering as Carlos Moya won the French Open with a Babolat
tennis racket. For a man who had grown up in a hallowed family
business (Babolat made its first tennis strings out of cow gut
in 1875) and felt that only a grow-or-die attitude would keep
the company alive, it was a moment of vindication. For decades,
Lyons-based Babolat had provided the stringing for the world's
top tennis players--seven of the men's Top 10, including Pete
Sampras, swear by Babolat gut--but Pierre had wanted to put his
own mark on the company. So in 1994, with interest in the game
slumping, racket sales shrinking and small manufacturers getting
squeezed by the likes of Wilson, Prince and Head, Pierre had
bulled ahead and unveiled the company's first racket.

"A lot of people said, 'They are crazy, they are launching at a
time when everybody is thinking of stopping,'" Eric says. "We
were so happy after. We had some stickers made with a picture of
Moya with the French trophy and Babolat's racket, and they said,
one on his car, which I found strange because he never had any
sticker on his car. But he was so crazy about this, like it was
his son."

It's a hot June afternoon. Eric has been sitting in his father's
chair for 10 months now, but the office feels borrowed still.
His father's books and tapes fill the shelves, and it's hard to
avoid the past in this quaint former monastery that has housed
the offices of Babolat's operation for five generations. Across
the back courtyard lies the stringing factory, with its sheaves
of yellowed cow gut resembling dried spaghetti; the R-and-D lab;
and the racket-testing rooms. Eric, the fifth member of the
family to run the company, is 29. He didn't expect to be here
just a year after that win in Paris. His father had presided
over Babolat, which is worth about $25 million, for only a
decade and was just hitting his stride. Eric had been his point
man in the racket division. Sales of the rackets had doubled
every year. The Babolats had headed into the U.S. Open riding
Moya's momentum, expanding into countries all over Europe and
making plans to move into Japan.

"It's a trauma," Eric says of Pierre's death. "I think of it
every day. Not the crash so much, but him, and things I didn't
do or say that I wanted to.... For many things every day I
think, What would he have done? I feel him around me."

After he learned that his father had been on Flight 111,
returning from meetings and matches at Flushing Meadow, Eric
drove to Geneva thinking he would receive news, the body,
something. But "after some time," he says, "they just told me
there was nothing to wait for." When he returned to Lyons, of
course, everything was different, "but the company did not
stop," he says. "The first word from people here was, 'There's
no way we will stop working. He wouldn't appreciate seeing us
just crying and waiting, doing nothing. We will fight.' It was
that way for them and for me: Get more involved in the work. Not
to forget [my father's death], but to live with it."

For a century Babolat's main competition in the gut market was a
U.S. company called Victor. Gut is expensive and fragile, used
now mostly by rich amateur players and pros. In 1975, sensing
that the mass market had shifted for good, Eric's grandfather
decided to upend tradition and manufacture synthetic string as
well as gut. Victor stuck stubbornly to gut, and, Eric says, "in
the end they disappeared." Pierre wanted to make Babolat a power
in rackets, too, and Eric vows to fulfill that ambition.

Babolat supplies free gut to many top players, including Rosset,
who has been using the strings for 11 years. Despite that
connection, Rosset sent the Babolats no condolences after the
crash. In fact, contrary to his musings immediately following
the disaster, he seemed utterly unaltered by his brush with
death. Simsolo, who had been coaching Rosset for only a month,
was looking for a way to lighten the player's brooding manner on
the tennis court; he felt that was key to bringing the then
27-year-old Rosset back into the Top 10 for the first time in
three years. Simsolo saw the crash as the perfect impetus: "It
could've been the best thing to happen to him. If that doesn't
affect him, what will?"

But Rosset continued his usual slog through practices and
matches, and by the end of the following week, after Rosset had
lost in the second round of a tournament in Tashkent, Simsolo
couldn't hide his frustration. The two men argued. "I told him,
'Don't be so depressed. We could be dead; we could be in the
water!'" Simsolo says. "But he said, 'So what? Tomorrow a roof
tile could fall on my head.' I realized it had had no effect on
him. I don't know why."

Rosset has continued to bob around the nether reaches of the Top
35, and despite making a nice run into the quarterfinals of the
1999 Australian Open and winning a tournament in Russia in
February, he split with Simsolo in June. Rosset had long since
grown bored with the subject of Flight 111; he summed up his
thoughts on it with a simple, "I thought I would be changed, but
I'm not." Indeed, when Christmas 1998 rolled around, Rosset
acted as if the year had held nothing extraordinary. His usual
card arrived at the Babolat office, no different from his card
in any other year. He wished everyone there the best.

No, he doesn't mind. You want to talk about it? Jake LaMotta
blows a thick billow of cigar smoke in your face. He shrugs.
"Other people do the same thing," he says. "They ask. They're
all curious about it. And yet, in the back of their minds, they
want to know more: How much? When it comes to money, everybody
gets greedy. It's the furthest thing from my mind. Whatever I'm
getting, I'll leave for my daughters. I don't need it. I don't
have to spend it. How much? How much? Ahh, Jesus. Greed."

LaMotta was the first relative of a Flight 111 crash victim to
file. One week after the plane went down with his 49-year-old
son, Joseph, on board, Jake sued Swissair, Delta Air Lines (with
which Swissair shares reservations systems), McDonnell-Douglas
and its owner, Boeing, for $125 million. Why? "Whatever's coming
to me, I want it," Jake says. "I don't want to get cheated." It
doesn't look good for the defendants. Every few months there are
potentially damaging reports: about faulty wiring in MD-11s (a
problem Swissair says was fixed before the crash), about a
strange odor on the plane a month before the crash. Lawyers on
talk shows speak of a possible $1 billion settlement.

LaMotta swears he never made more than $1 million, total, for
the punishment he took in 106 middleweight bouts during the
1940s and '50s. He is 77 years old, and he trips over words
sometimes, but the Raging Bull still doesn't miss much. On this
August night he walks into La Maganette, a bistro on Manhattan's
East Side, as if he owns the joint, his face tanned, a nice
pomade in his thinning curls. The bartender nods and says, "Hey,
Champ." LaMotta's lawyer, Joseph Fell, sits down across from him
at the table. LaMotta could become a rich man.

"I saw a movie yesterday: Kirk Douglas, he's an old man, he's
going to die and leave a lot of money," LaMotta says. "So true
to life! Everybody...cousins...they all get greedy. They can't
help it! Money! Aww, the questions people ask me. A lot of
people are evil." He stares down at the tabletop and says
softly, "Money. Money."

Last year was crippling for him. No other year--not 1947, when
he threw a fight to a cream puff named Billy Fox to get a shot
at the title, and not '58, when he was tossed in the Dade County
jail for six months after he was convicted of corrupting the
morals of a minor in his Miami Beach bar--did as much damage to
LaMotta as '98. In February his first son, Jack, died of liver
cancer. Then came Joe, who had stepped in for Jack as Jake's
agent and was en route to Geneva to line up appearances for Jake
and promote the family spaghetti sauce.

This idea gnaws at Jake: It was all his fault. He never liked
doctors, and Jack took that cue, refusing to get checked until
his skin went yellow and it was too late. And wasn't Jake the
one who took Joe to Switzerland the first time? If Joe had never
gone, he wouldn't have wanted to go back, right?

Jake used to laugh at death. In his early 70s he was heard to
say, "I've had six kids and six wives: Two wives died, four are
left. I've got to wait to bury four of them. They're all going
to die before me!"

He still tries to stay light about death, but the humor has lost
some bite. "I say, 'It must be a nice place up there, because
nobody ever came back,' and 'Everybody's dying to get there,'"
Jake says. "It works. Make a joke out of it.... But, no, I
couldn't sleep for months after the crash. It bothered me
different. Some people, they cry and go on. Me? I just kept it
in. I couldn't talk. I stuttered all the time. Even now, I'm
stuttering a little, see? But I'll get over it. I'm getting over

The 1980 movie Raging Bull, of course, revitalized his career.
Robert De Niro portrayed LaMotta as a bitter, foul-mouthed brute
who engaged in bloody ring masterpieces with Sugar Ray Robinson
("I never went down, Ray!"), routinely beat up his wife, Vickie
(the mother of Jack, Joe and one of Jake's four daughters), and
savaged everything else he loved with a volcanic rage. LaMotta
loves the film and says it's accurate except for the cursing.
But Raging Bull missed one vital point: LaMotta is an oddly
moral man. He believes there is a force in the
universe--"retribution, a karma," he says--that exacts payment
for every bad deed, and lord knows he has committed more than
his share. There was the man he nearly beat to death in a
robbery attempt, the woman he raped, the family he lost to
drink. He fought so recklessly in the ring because, he says, "I
wanted to get killed. I didn't deserve to live."

Now, though, for the first time since he was a boy, LaMotta
feels clean. Jack and Joe in the same year? "I think I paid my
dues," he says. "I think the scale is balanced now. It's got to
be balanced."

He is wearing a black T-shirt, sweatpants, white sneakers. His
nose is flat and veers to the side, broken six times,
cross-stitched with scars. His green cigar lies slack and
smoking between his lips. He makes loose fists with both hands
on the tabletop, caressing his fingertips with his thumbs. He is
less angry about Joe than about Jack, who was so tight with a
dollar that he didn't bother with medical insurance and then
refused to pay to see doctors. "I got really pissed off at him,"
Jake says. "I was closer to Jack than to Joe."

Jake had little contact with his sons when they were young, and
Joe always felt overshadowed by his father's fame and damaged by
his neglect. Joe boxed a little as a young man, flitted from job
to job and, in 1987, tried to score big by helping to arrange a
cocaine deal worth $152,500. "He could've been killed, he was
involved with guns...but he made it," Jake says. "It wasn't
meant for him to die that way. He was meant to die in a plane
crash." Everyone involved in the coke deal got caught, and Joe
served half of a five-year sentence in a federal work camp
before being paroled.

Joe's friends remember him as a big, dependable, emotional bear
of a man. Bob Brichler, the assistant U.S. attorney who
prosecuted Joe, says he was no hard-core criminal. "He was in
love with this girl [who was behind the coke deal], and that had
a lot to do with it," Brichler says. "As I remember, he was
pretty much a gentleman."

It wasn't until the final months of his life that Joe began to
shine. He traveled with Jake to autograph shows and cooked up
the concept of LaMotta's Tomato Sauce. In July 1998, Joe and
Jake went to Geneva to gauge prospects for the sauce in Europe,
where Jake is popular. Joe was gaining confidence. "He had
always been in the shadow of his father," says Fell, Jake's
lawyer and Joe's best friend, "but now he was psyched. If the
sauce had done well, he would've moved to Geneva. He was already
asking me to find somebody to manage his dad. I think he just
wanted to start living his own life."

The only people Jake truly trusted were Joe and Jack. "Now that
my sons died, I do my own managing," he says. Every morning he
wakes up in his midtown Manhattan apartment and shadowboxes for
15 minutes, sometimes 30. "I still like sex," he says. "I can
function pretty good."

"You know what people do now?" he says. "They think I'm the
godfather. They kiss my hand, women and men! Men come over and
kiss me on the forehead. When my son died? More people were
stopping me in the street. They hugged me, women, men."

LaMotta turns to the bartender. "What do you say there, Tony!
Where's the broads?" He slaps down his hands. "This is my table.
Wednesday and Friday nights I come here. Everybody comes over,
and I never complain. I hope to god, if I ever complain, I get
shot in the head. My public made me a living while I was
fighting, and they're making me a living now."

He goes silent, but that mention of the lawsuit has stuck with
him all night. "Let me ask you a question," he says. "What do
you think of the first guy to file? I asked my lawyer the same
thing. 'I'm going to be the first? That's ridiculous.' He said,
'Jake, you got to get there ahead of people'...uh...what'd he

"We said that you want the answers," Fell says. "You filed
because you wanted answers to why Joe is no longer here."


"If you don't do it, somebody else will."

"That's what he said, yeah, and that's one answer," LaMotta
says, "but there could've been other answers too."

"Well, there could've been any number of answers," Fell says.

"Well, they put words in my mouth...and I agreed with it."

"You were still in shock. You didn't understand what went on.
You lost Joe right after you lost Jack."

"I also said I didn't want it to happen to other people,"
LaMotta says.

"Right," says Fell. "You want to fix the problem."

"Something like that. I don't want that to happen again."

"You meant that."

"You explained it to me, and I understood it."

Talk moves to the accomplished people on board the plane. "But I
was the only popular one connected with the flight," Jake says.
"The one who stood out."

The Picasso comes up, the diamonds, the $4 million. "That's
all?" Jake says, then he waits for the joke to slide away.

Finally: "Did they ever get the cash?"

Everyone shrugs. It's getting late; Jake is beginning to flag.
Fell says he can't believe that the anniversary is just weeks
away. "Has it been a year?" Jake says.

He turns again and asks, "Did you know? They found my son's arm."

The losing doesn't mark him, at least not anymore. He lost again
today, and though it was the French Open and his best surface
and against an opponent you'd think he could handle--who knew
that Andrei Medvedev would ride this first-round victory all the
way into the 1999 final?--Dinu Pescariu shows up for an
interview smiling. He cuts a sharp figure: black jeans, a
blinding white T-shirt, thick black shoes shined to an inky
gleam. He catches your eye and holds it, easily recounting why
he played so poorly, how he failed.

But when the word Swissair comes up, everything changes.
Pescariu crosses his arms, begins scanning the walls, ceiling
and floor, a man in search of an escape hatch. His eyes start to
shine. "No, no, it's too soon," he says, the words warped by his
thick Romanian accent. "I don't like to talk about this. It is
still with me. I can't."

But Pescariu doesn't move. He doesn't growl and stalk off at the
mention of the flight, as Rosset did recently. Suddenly Pescariu
begins talking.

He'd just lost to Jan Siemerink in the first round of the U.S.
Open, and he didn't want to wait two days for his Wednesday
reservation on Flight 111. So he went to JFK on Tuesday and
arrived in Bucharest on Wednesday, had a nice evening and went
to sleep. When his fellow pro Ion Moldovan called the next
morning to tell him of the crash, Pescariu says, "I start
thinking, What if? Many things for me have changed." He tries to
smile politely. "I'm sorry. There's no way I can talk about this
now. We can do it in one year maybe. Sometimes it's very bad. My
heart, I feel my heart. It starts beating, and I feel like...."

He stops. "But this is all, because every time I speak about
this, even now, and it's been a long time, I start feeling bad. I
no like." He shrugs apologetically. "I don't know why. Maybe it
sounds strange."

Few people outside the tennis world have heard of Pescariu, and
now that he has hit age 25, the sport's unofficial line of
demarcation, when all hope of a breakthrough is gone, few ever
will. He is ranked No. 136 in the world. Pescariu was the
European junior champion at 16 and used to beat up on players
like Medvedev, but he never got better. It's his fate to be a
footnote in the newspaper agate sections (Agassi d. Pescariu,
6-3, 6-4, 6-1). He's a victim and can earn $150,000 a year being
a victim. Before last September he had accepted that. As long as
he took no foolish chances, he could have a comfortable career
and, perhaps, even handle the old family fear.

Pescariu hates to fly. His terror goes down to the bone. "My
grandfather which I never met, the father of my father, he died
in a plane crash," he says. "And my father, his life was marked
by this incident, so he doesn't like to fly. And I don't. I take
this from him. Unfortunately, there's no other way I can go to
the tournaments. Every time I have the chance, I go by car. But
most of the time, there's no way."

Besides, no matter how much Pescariu tries, he can't keep planes
from looming over his life. He has had one wonderful day in
tennis, one moment when he tasted greatness and life seemed
perfect. "I beat McEnroe," he says, "6-2, 6-2." It was 1991.
Pescariu was 17 and at his peak, and when he qualified that
April to play in a top-level tournament in Munich, he had a
dilemma: He had agreed to play that day in a juniors event in
Hamburg. His sponsor, Panasonic, came up with a solution; it
hired a small plane for Pescariu. Early that morning Dinu and
his father, dry-mouthed, hurtled north to Hamburg. Dinu won his
match, flew back to Munich and went from the airport to the
court. John McEnroe was waiting.

They played a few games. Pescariu broke McEnroe's serve, and
then rain came. They resumed the next morning, and Pescariu
rolled. McEnroe got upset, even tried drilling Pescariu with one
shot, but none of the old tricks worked. At the end Pescariu
hoped for a nice word, a smile, something from McEnroe.
"Nothing," he says. "I felt bad about this, because he was my
idol. I expected at least, 'Well played.' But he didn't say
anything." It didn't matter. Pescariu's parents had traveled to
see him, and he and his father had survived a trip through the
sky. "I felt very happy," he says.

Last September, Pescariu felt anything but relief. With Flight
111, the family fear became real; it was as if he had grown up
fascinated by tales of the big bad wolf and then, one autumn
morning, felt hot breath on his neck. Moldovan, his best friend,
has sensed a change in Pescariu, a preoccupation that wasn't
there before. Pescariu sees his parents often. No one brings up
Swissair. "I think they feel that I don't want to talk about
this," Pescariu says, "so we never talk about it. It can only
make the thing worse."

He sees Rosset around, in locker rooms, practicing. They don't
speak. Pescariu doesn't believe anyone can be as blase as
Rosset. The crash shattered Pescariu, and he's trying to pick up
the pieces, make something new. He wants six good months of
training, just to find out once and for all how good a player he
can be. "I tell you, there are many things that now I see
differently," he says. "Things that before meant so much to me
now don't. The fights I had with my friends? This made me be a
little more understanding--the next day I could crash and die. I
feel now that there are many things more important than tennis,
many things more important than a fight."

He flies still. He checks in, buys a magazine, waits, boards,
buckles up, watches the safety-instructions video, feels his
stomach drop as the wheels spin. He tries to cocoon himself in
sleep, shutting out the hum of the engines, the turbulence. But
nothing stops memory: On Sept. 1, the day before the first
anniversary of the crash, caskets full of passengers' remains
went into the ground during a ceremony overlooking St.
Margaret's Bay. Pescariu wasn't there. The sea is pretty this
time of year, and he's not the player he used to be. But he is