28 Seconds
Part One: Zulu
Page 2
October 1992
Joan and Brett fell in love at the University of Iowa and were married in a church in Iowa City. Says Brett: “There’s this one line I’ll always remember, like country wisdom: ‘The right woman can make you and the wrong one can break you.’ I had the right one for me.”

Sept. 8, 1994
Lisle, Illinois

Brett and Joan Van Bortel pulled into the parking lot at the Lisle train station before sunrise, with a few minutes to spare until Joan had to catch the 6:20 a.m. train. A sign beside the track said "TO CHICAGO," with a big arrow pointing east.

Joan, who grew up on the family farm in Iowa, was now a big-city business executive. She was 29, a marketing manager for Akzo Nobel, a chemical company that sold the raw materials for rubber. She wasn't a chemist, but she took the extra time to learn the science of her products. She even made her employees take written quizzes ("How is rubber cured?" "Name one of our products that has zinc in it.")

She was 5 feet 2, a foot shorter than Brett, with honey-brown hair and brown eyes. She did aerobics, which meant she could indulge in her afternoon ritual: Skittles or licorice from the snack machine.

Joan planned to spend the day in the office, then catch a quick flight to Pittsburgh for a meeting. Brett would be home installing tile on the kitchen floor. He had promised to be finished before she came home the next night.

They kissed goodbye. Joan looked all business in her green and white suit, briefcase in hand. She wore a simple wedding band paired with an elegant engagement ring, which had a big marquise diamond surrounded by four other diamonds.

At the office, the day got crazy with meetings and phone calls. Joan was running late when she grabbed her bags at 3:45 p.m. and caught the El train to O'Hare. She dashed to Gate F6, where the USAir plane already was boarding. She was in 14E, a middle seat just behind the wing.

To her right in 14F was Robert Connolly, a financial consultant headed home to Pittsburgh. In the row ahead of them was 7-year-old Scott Weaver, coming home after a cousin's funeral. Scott's 11-year-old sister, Lindsay, was directly behind Joan. Scattered around the plane were Department of Energy employees returning from a coal conference. The man in 17F was a drug dealer.

USAir workers filled the belly of the plane with 1,700 pounds of luggage and a ton of BusinessWeek magazines bound for subscribers in the Carolinas. The flight was running 15 minutes late, so USAir mechanic Tim Molloy had extra time for a final safety check. He circled the big silver plane twice, checking the tires, the wings, the rudder, the tubes that measure airspeed and the fluid levels for the hydraulic systems. Everything was in order.

A mechanic pushed the plane back with a tractor and told the pilots it was safe to start the engines. He stood back and snapped them a salute.

Flight 427 was on its way.

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28 Seconds


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