BARCELONA — "Run!" he told the children. "Run through the cornfield!"
They were 12 and 9 and they were scared. Melissa Roth squeezed her kid brother Todd's hand and they did what the man said. They ran. They ran as fast and as far as they could. Neither knew what had become of their older brother Jody, 14. They obeyed the man and ran screaming through the field of Iowa corn. Todd cut himself on a stalk.
Michael Matz ran back into the burning airplane.
He shielded his eyes. He stepped over bodies. One by one, he inspected each face. Any second, he expected to find his fiancee. He prayed that he would. He prayed that he would not. He had no idea where D.D. Alexander was. One minute, she was seated by his side. Now she was nowhere to be found and the airplane was upside-down.
Matz was searching through the wreckage when he heard a sound. It was coming from an overhead compartment. Only the overhead was no longer overhead. He had to stoop low to pry open the lid. When he did, the sound got louder.
How it got in there, Matz still doesn't know.
"Come here," he said.
He cradled the crying baby in his arms and carried it from the plane.
The first time Michael Matz made it to the Summer Olympics, he skipped the opening ceremony. "There will be other Olympics," he said. It was Montreal, 1976. It took him 16 years to get to another. He went to Barcelona's opening ceremony. He said he wouldn't have missed it for anything.
It falls into the category of making every minute count.
The simple pleasure of saddling his 14-year-old chestnut horse, Heisman, for the show-jumping portion of this week's Olympic equestrian competition is something that Matz, 41, of Collegeville, Pa., will in no way take for granted--not after what happened on July 19, 1989, when he was a passenger aboard United Airlines Flight 232 from Chicago to Denver.
Every detail remains vivid:
--The in-flight film footage of, of all things, a horse race, a recent Triple Crown race between Easy Goer and Sunday Silence.
--The noisy \o7 clank.\f7
--The pilot's reassurance.
--The announcement that the plane was being diverted to Sioux City, Iowa.
--The warning that the landing was likely to be a little rough.
--The instruction from the cockpit to the cabin: "Count to four."
Matz checked his seat belt and to see if Alexander was all right.
He looked around at nearly 300 passengers and was astounded at how calm most remained.
Snapping open his briefcase, Matz fished out his passport and snapshots of his children. "I thought it might help in case someone needed to, you know, ID me."
He never counted four.
The last thing Matz noticed was that the plane still seemed to be too high on its approach to be landing. He felt the right wing graze the ground. The jet was well short of Sioux City's Gateway Airport. It came down hard, skidded a great distance and flipped. A seat opposite Matz came unhinged from its moorings, still occupied.
There was confusion and fire. Nearly half of those killed, authorities would determine later, died from smoke inhalation. Survivors hurdled the casualties to reach the emergency exit. Matz saw the two terrified Roth children and took them in hand. They were coughing and calling out for their older brother. The three children were flying alone to Wyoming to visit their grandparents. Jody had sat at their side. He was no longer there.
Matz carried the kids off the plane and saw the cornfield through the smoke. Others already were running toward it. "Run!" he said. They did. "Don't look back!" he called after them. They didn't.
He re-boarded the plane. There he found Jerry Schemmel, who had been in first class, searching for his traveling companion, Jay Ramsdell. Schemmel served as deputy to Ramsdell, who was commissioner of the Continental Basketball Assn., the professional minor league. Matz helped him look, but mainly kept looking for Alexander, his fiancee. She had flowing red hair and wore a yellow suit. She was hard to miss.
"If I looked at one dead person, I looked at 50 or 100," Matz said. "I kept hoping that none of them would be her."
He found the baby instead.
In all, there were 111 fatalities. Ramsdell was one of them. Jody Roth was not. And neither was D.D. Alexander. Amid the chaos, they were two of the first off the plane. "Obviously, she's a faster runner than me," Matz said Sunday, then took a deep sigh. "It's strange to be able to joke about it now."
Sixty more people were injured. Even the baby had a trickle of blood. Iowa samaritans from 75 miles in every direction drove up to volunteer. The Red Cross rescue crew arrived and assumed Matz was one of theirs. He loaded bodies onto stretchers.
Matz found the Roth children and contacted their grandparents in Laramie himself. Someone from the airport phoned to say \o7 two\f7 of the children were safe. Matz told them the third was, too.