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."
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
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.