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Unbridled Courage

Michael Matz, the trainer of Kentucky Derby entrant Barbaro, was a hero in a 1989 plane crash and has lived life to the fullest ever since

May 01, 2006|Robyn Norwood | Times Staff Writer

If Barbaro wins the Kentucky Derby on Saturday, it will be one of the happiest days of trainer Michael Matz's life, but not even close to the luckiest.

That was July 19, 1989, the day United Airlines Flight 232 crashed in an Iowa cornfield with 296 people aboard.

Matz and his fiancee were among the 184 who survived.

Matz, an Olympic equestrian, helped two children and an infant escape the wreckage before finally discovering that his fiancee -- now his wife -- had made it off the plane safely from her seat in another row.

On Saturday, two of those children, now grown, plan to be at Churchill Downs cheering on Matz and Barbaro.

"If they win, you might have a hard time getting through on my cellphone, because I guarantee you I'll be calling everyone I know," said Travis Roth, who was a 9-year-old seated next to Matz the day of the crash and is now 26 and living in Laramie, Wyo., where he just completed work on a master's degree.

He and his sister, Melissa Radcliffe, now 29 and a mother of two living in Denver, are making the trip. Their older brother Jody Roth, 31 -- seated in another row that day as the children traveled alone to visit their grandmother -- might miss the Derby because of the arrival of his second child in Fort Collins, Colo.

The first indication something was wrong on the 1989 flight from Denver to Chicago was the sound of an engine failing.

"We heard the bang," Matz recalled recently outside the barn in Lexington, Ky., where he stabled Barbaro for a couple of weeks before moving the colt to Louisville for the Derby.

At first, a crew member tried to reassure the passengers.

"He said not to worry, we've got three engines," Matz said.

But Capt. Al Haynes -- later credited for his handling of the crippled plane -- soon realized the hydraulic lines had been severed, leaving him with virtually no ability to control the airliner.

"I turned to the guy sitting beside me and I said, 'Whatever happens, we've got to get these children out,' " Matz said. "He looked at me, dazed."

The crew prepared for an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa -- "The pilot told us to get in the brace position, 'I'm going to count four, three, two, one, and at one, brace yourself,' " Matz said -- but the plane crashed short of the runway and cartwheeled.

"When the plane turned over, we were sitting upside down and everybody unbuckled and fell to the ceiling," Matz said.

Oddly, there was little panic on the plane before the crash, Travis Roth remembered.

"Michael was sitting next to me and my sister, and the first engine blew a couple of hours into the flight," he said. "We were watching some horse racing show on the Triple Crown. The engine blew up, but he kept us talking and playing cards and made it so we didn't really worry about it. Then the actual plane crash happened, and we walked out. He just pointed us, 'Go that way,' and he went back in to help other people."

As rescuers tended to survivors near the crash scene, Travis and Melissa reunited with Jody, who had made it off the plane from his seat in another row.

Matz, after telling the children to run away and not look back, went back onto the plane in search of fiancee D.D. Alexander. He and another passenger heard a baby crying, and rescued the infant from an overhead bin.

When he finally saw D.D. among the survivors, she was with the Roth children.

"A lot of stories say he saved us from the plane," Travis Roth said. "But here's why he's a hero: The 24 hours after the plane went down. That's when he showed who he was as a person.

"When he found us, he made sure we were taken care of and helped us contact our parents. There weren't cellphones everywhere. Now, 17 years later, I'm not emotionally scarred, I don't have bad memories, I don't have a fear of flying.

"My sister says the thing she remembers after the plane crash was eating McDonald's and having ice cream. He kind of shielded us."

Matz doesn't dwell on the crash except when asked -- which has been frequently in the run-up to the Derby.

He and the children have visited a couple of times over the years, the families exchange Christmas cards, and their grandmother often sent maple syrup at the holidays.

"If the situation arose where my children were flying, I would hope someone would do the same thing for me," Matz said.

"It certainly changes you," he said. "You appreciate a lot of things. Any time these things happen like that, it's ... things can be very delicate."

He and D.D. had another scare last fall, when she was found to have thyroid cancer.

"Luckily, they operated and took it out and everything is well," Matz said. "We've got four little kids and two older ones. That was a little bit of a rough time there, but everything's all right now."

Already an Olympic veteran at the time of the crash, Matz, now 55, went on to compete in three Olympics, and was chosen to carry the U.S. flag at the closing ceremony in Atlanta in 1996, where he helped the U.S. team win a silver medal.

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