28 Seconds
Part Two: The soda can
STORY BY BILL ADAIR PHOTOGRAPHS BY BILL SERNE OF THE TIMES STAFF
photo
Mementos in the woods. On trees at the crash site, relatives and friends of the victims tacked remembrances of their loved ones: a simple cross, a Super Grandpa hat, an angel with a poem. This tree bears scars of the crash.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
March 3, 1991

Before United Airlines Flight 585 took off from Denver, Capt. Harold Green noted that the winds were deceptively strong. "Nice lookin' day," he said. "Hard to believe the skies are unfriendly."

The Boeing 737 had an uneventful flight, but a minute before landing in Colorado Springs, it rolled to the right.

"Oh my God! Oh my God!" shouted First Officer Trish Eidson.

As the 737 dived toward a park, witnesses saw the passengers' frightened faces pressed against the windows. All 25 people aboard were killed.

Did strong crosswinds off the mountains bring down the plane? Or did the 737, the most widely used jetliner in the world, have a hidden mechanical flaw?

The National Transportation Safety Board had a spectacular success rate solving plane crashes, but this time the board decided it was stumped. On the cover of the final report, in big blue letters, were words embarrassing to the NTSB and unsettling for air travelers. The plane crashed "FOR UNDETERMINED REASONS."

Three years later, another 737 went down: USAir Flight 427, on approach to Pittsburgh on a clear and calm summer evening, spun out of the sky, killing all 132 people on board.

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Sept. 10, 1994

As Brett Van Bortel drove into Hopewell Township on Route 60, the hill where his wife died was glowing a brilliant white. Lights ringed the hill like a crown.

He had been overwhelmed by friends who stopped by to give their condolences. They had good intentions, but Brett needed to escape. He hoped to visit the crash site and say goodbye to Joan. USAir had said he probably could visit the hill and that he might be needed to identify her body.

So two days after the crash, Brett, his mother, his friend Craig and Joan's brother Dan piled into his mom's Jeep Cherokee and drove nine hours straight through from Chicago to Pittsburgh.

They pulled off the highway so Brett could get his first look at the place where his wife died. The lights made the scene surreal, almost beautiful. Brett said a long prayer.

That night at his hotel, Brett met the USAir employee who had volunteered to help him during his visit. She seemed befuddled.

She rode around in a white limo but couldn't remember her hotel. She had a cellular phone so Brett could get in touch with her any time, but the battery was dead and she didn't know how to charge it. She kept flipping through legal pads, reciting messages from her bosses, but she couldn't answer basic questions. The only time she seemed animated was when Brett mentioned talking to the media.

"You can talk to the media," she said, "but we'd advise against it because you're going through a period of grieving."

The USAir woman gave a spirited explanation of how they were going to identify the 132 victims using a grid and flags to locate the body parts.

"Great," Brett said, "I'm glad you're getting a little science lesson out of it while there are pieces of my wife laying up on that hillside."

A day or two later, USAir reversed itself and said the families would not be able to visit the crash site. Brett attended two memorial services, then went home to Chicago.

The airline asked him to send books and perfume bottles that might have Joan's fingerprints. Identifying the passengers had turned out to be much harder than anyone expected.

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