28 Seconds
Part One: Zulu
Page 5
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Brett and Joan bought a three-bedroom, fixer-upper (purple and green rooms in desperate need of paint) in Lisle, a suburb west of Chicago. They liked the big back yard, figuring it wouldn’t be long before they had kids. Brett promised Joan he would finish tiling the kitchen floor before she returned from Pittsburgh.
[Times photo: Bill Serne]

Brett Van Bortel was on his knees laying the final piece of floor tile when the phone rang.

He and Joan were not do-it-yourselfers when they bought the three-bedroom fixer-upper in the Chicago suburb of Lisle, but they had gotten better with each room they renovated.

Married for a year and a half, they had suburban dreams. Both had ambitious career plans and wanted to start a family soon. They lay in bed and talked about what the kids might look like.

The phone call was from Joan's secretary.

"There's been a plane crash," she said in a worried tone. "I think Joan was on it."

Brett flipped on CNN. The first words out of the television were "...no survivors."

"Well, we had initial reports of 123 people aboard, possibly 130 if that's counting a crew of seven," said CNN anchor Linden Soles.

Brett called the number that CNN listed for USAir, but he kept getting busy signals. When he finally got through, the airline employees were clueless. He told them his wife might have been on the plane. USAir promised to call back.

He tried anyone else who might know Joan's travel plans. He left a message for the co-worker she was supposed to meet in Pittsburgh. He called her credit card company, but they were no help. He called Joan's hotel, but the operator kept saying she had not checked in.

He kept trying to convince himself that Joan wasn't on the plane. There were dozens of flights to Pittsburgh. What were the odds that she was on the one that crashed? But as the night wore on with no word from her, reality set in. He began to cry.

When the guy Joan was supposed to meet finally called, Brett's friend Craig Wheatley answered the phone. The man said Joan's flight was listed 15 minutes late, then it was deleted from the airport TV monitors. When the man went to the front desk, someone told him the plane had crashed.

Craig hung up and, crying, came into the hallway to tell Brett.

All he needed to say was, "I'm sorry, man."

Brett felt like he was melting, like his shoulders were falling off his body. He stood there, stunned, tears streaming down his face.

He kept frantically calling USAir, but the airline's employees were no help.

"Goddammit! My wife is dead! And you can't tell me anything!"

"Hold on please," the USAir employee said.

He came back a few seconds later and said, "We don't have anything at this time. We'll try and let you know as soon as possible."

* * *

Ralph Miller had confirmed the names of many of the passengers less than two hours after the crash, but their relatives still weren't told: USAir President Seth Schofield had ordered that no families be notified until the list was complete.

About 10:30 p.m., 31/2 hours after the crash, Miller finally had every name. But Schofield personally wanted to approve the list before the calls began, and he was on a charter flight to Pittsburgh and unreachable.

None of the sullen-faced executives in the conference room wanted to override their boss. So they continued to field angry calls, under orders not to say what they knew.

The apprehension in the room had given way to gloom. The managers watched updates on CNN and gazed up at posters on the walls that listed the passengers' names. In previous crashes, there was a line beneath each name for their status -- where they were hospitalized, whether they were critical or stable. But the status lines were blank for the Flight 427 passengers. All of them were dead.

Finally Schofield landed in Pittsburgh and said the calls could begin. It was midnight now, five hours after the crash.

"We're handing out a confirmed list," Miller told the group. "Throw anything else away. If you get calls, you can find out the next of kin and notify them."

In the airline industry, the count of passengers and crew on a plane is known as "souls on board." The USAir managers now had to deliver the news about the souls on Flight 427.

* * *

When Brett awoke on a couch at his parents' house the next morning, there was a moment when all seemed okay. Then everything came rushing back.

A short time later, USAir finally tracked him down.

"Mr. Van Bortel," the man from USAir said, "this is absolutely confirmed, sir. Your wife was on the plane last night." Brett thought the USAir guy sounded weird, almost excited about it.

Brett, who was 28, had gone years without crying, but now he wept uncontrollably. Friends came by the house to comfort him, bringing trays of cold cuts and baked goods. Bright flower arrangements filled every room in his parents' big house.

A woman from the airline called and said she would be Brett's "family coordinator." She wanted to know what Joan looked like, what she was wearing, her shoes, her jewelry. Brett told her Joan's one-of-a-kind engagement ring might provide the best clue.

Brett felt the walls closing in, so he went for a run in the nature preserve across the road where he and Joan often hiked and played touch football with friends. He ran a 5-mile loop, cut through the woods, then sprinted up a hill. Up and back, up and back he ran, trying to make sense of it all.

That night, he asked his uncle, an airline pilot, whether the government would be able to find the cause. "The NTSB is the best in the world at what they do," his uncle said. "If it's possible to find out what happened, they'll find out."

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