In more than 30 years as a journalist, I’ve been called clueless more times than I can imagine. It’s an occupational hazard, I guess.
But, at least for a while on a brilliant summer morning 10 years ago in Big Bear Lake, Calif., I truly was clueless, and, I’ll admit now, happily, blissfully so.
That day, I was one of five passengers on a Cessna Citation 550 jet that left Las Vegas bound for Big Bear, where that afternoon Oscar De La Hoya would host a media gathering to promote his Sept. 14, 2002, bout with archrival Fernando Vargas.
Then, as now, I was a combat sports writer. I was working for the Las Vegas Review-Journal and had traveled with colleague Royce Feour, promoter Bob Arum of Top Rank and Mandalay Bay executives Scott Voeller and H.C. Rowe to De La Hoya’s workout.
As we were making the final descent, Feour, seated at my left, remarked how we were right on time. We were scheduled to land at 11:15 a.m. I checked my watch and it was 11:14. We were at the top of the trees and would touch down within seconds.
I turned to Feour, intending to answer him, but I never got the chance. Feour and I were facing the back of the plane. Voeller was sitting on the other side of the aisle from me, facing forward, directly in front of Feour.
As I was about to respond to Feour, Voeller shouted, “Hang on! We’re going down!”
The next thing I remember was a hard crash. Then there was a series of very rough bumps, and then a second, very hard crash. The force of that second jolt threw me to my right and I banged my head on the wall on the side of the plane.
I gripped the arms of my seat tightly and hung on in an attempt to keep my balance.
And then, suddenly, we were stopped and things started happening quickly.
When we had taken off, Feour had difficulty getting his seat belt to tighten properly. It was very loose, and so when we landed, Feour was moving around the plane far more than anyone else.
When the plane stopped, Feour was leaning across the aisle, his head touching my leg.
This is where being clueless benefitted me. I hadn’t realized we had wrecked and would suddenly become mini-celebrities for having survived a plane crash.
I just thought it was a rough landing and that the pilot wasn’t particularly good. You just don’t survive plane wrecks, and so I never gave a thought to the fact that we had, indeed, just crashed.
As soon as we came to a standstill, the first thought that had come to mind was why Feour hadn’t moved back to his seat. But before I could process that information, Voeller shouted again. The urgency and intensity in his voice grabbed my attention instantly.
“Get off the plane!” he shouted. “The wings are on fire.”
The way the plane was configured, I had to move to see out the window. As I did, sure enough, flames were dancing on the wings.
I helped Feour move back to his seat. As I did, co-pilot Craig Terry emerged from the cockpit and tried to open the door.
He couldn’t open it. The force of the landing had pushed the door out of shape and it couldn’t be opened by hand.
Terry kicked the door twice. The first time, nothing happened. The second time, it popped opened and we had a fighting chance to survive.
Terry jumped off the plane, followed by Rowe, who had been seated in front of me, facing forward.
I got up and walked off the plane, as calm as if it had been just another landing.
When I exited, though, not only could I see the flames, but hear them crackling. I stood on the ground at the doorway and waited for Feour. I knew that he had issues with his seat belt and I was worried he might have been injured.
The flames on the wings were to my right and, fortunately, the wind was blowing the flames away from us.
I shouted for Feour, who should have been right behind me. No response.
I shouted again for him, calling, “Royce!” When he didn’t show immediately, I stepped back onto the edge of the plane. As I did, I heard Arum’s voice, though I couldn’t make out what he was saying.
Feour looked very shaken and unsteady on his feet. I reached and grabbed his arm and yanked him toward me. He stumbled and fell, about 10 feet from the plane. Shortly after, Arum and Voeller emerged.
We stood near the plane and counted, making certain everyone was there. Fire trucks were already arriving on the scene. I counted six people, including myself, which meant we were one shy.
None of us had initially seen pilot Joseph Tophan exit the plane. But when he got off, he walked away from our group and toward the woods. We finally noticed him, in some distress, leaning against a tree, staring at the burning plane as if in disbelief.
As we were expressing relief that everyone was safe, firemen began shouting.
We took off toward the terminal. We got a couple of hundred yards away and stopped. Feour was having issues. Everyone else was fine, but fairly on edge. As Feour was trying to catch his breath, I heard a sound that I’ve heard dozens, if not hundreds of times, in my mind since.
The explosion pierced the air and the plane was now fully engulfed in flames, smoke billowing into the air.
The enormity of what had happened had finally hit me. My father was 79 years old at the time and stricken with cancer. He would die almost a year to the day later.
He was an extremely nervous flier who had only flown a handful of times in his life. I thought about him and thought whether I should call him, to let him know I had been in a wreck but was OK.
At first, I thought I’d wait until I was home, because I didn’t want to alarm him. But then, I saw several television crews arriving and I knew I’d have to call. Arum’s presence on the plane meant this would be big news.
Arum said Monday he was aware of the crash all along. He was able to see out the window and said he saw the wings catch fire.
“I remember shouting to Royce to move, to get off the plane,” Arum said. “And when we got off, you remember we were standing right there by the plane. I had seen the flames. I knew we needed to get away from it.
“We ran away and I think we could have beaten [Olympic sprint champion Usain] Bolt that day. We couldn’t panic and we had to get out of there.”
Feour was transported by ambulance to the hospital, where he was treated and released. A car picked me up and drove me to De La Hoya’s home. Arum, Rowe and Voeller went in another vehicle.
As I arrived at the gates of De La Hoya’s home, the large throng of media, which had heard rumblings of what had happened, raced toward me. I was the first from the crash party, so to speak, to arrive at De La Hoya’s.
Instantly, I was engulfed. Admittedly, I was a ham, and enjoyed recounting what had just occurred. There was a sea of people around me, seemingly hanging on my every word.
For about five minutes, I spoke and questions were fired at me. I thought about how this was what it was like for the athletes I covered. I was used to being behind the cameras, shouting the questions. It was a vastly difference experience on the other side.
And then, as I was getting to enjoy the attention, everyone almost at the same time forgot about me and raced the other way. Arum had arrived and entered by a different gate. He, as a Hall of Fame boxing promoter and one of the most significant persons in the sport’s history, was the story of this crash, not me.
Arum did his thing with the reporters, holding court like only he can. Finally, De La Hoya emerged from the house to meet the media. Chairs were set up for the reporters to interview him. Because of the attention from the wreck — I was talking to everyone you can imagine, describing what had occurred — I was late getting a seat for the interview, the very reason I had made the trip.
I stood in the back of the group of reporters. Lee Samuels, Top Rank’s publicist, noticed me. As De La Hoya was about to begin, Samuels asked him to wait. Hethen grabbed me by the arm and pulled me right next to De La Hoya.
He handed me a folding chair and I sat down.
De La Hoya looked at me, beamed and said, “How do you rate getting that seat?”
I looked at him, smiled back and said, “I almost got killed coming here to see you and you have to ask me that?” We both laughed.
The aftermath of the story was the best part. Nothing was wrong with me. I had a laptop, a notepad, a tape recorder and a couple of pens with me. They were fine. I was fine. I had zero injuries.
Suddenly, though, I started to get phone calls from personal injury attorneys, asking if I would let them take on my case.
I had no injuries. I suffered no damage. So what kind of a case did I have? I wasn’t about to sue anyone.
One attorney was particularly aggressive and urged me to sue.
“You don’t know how much money you’re leaving on the table,” he said.
Perhaps not, but to me, it would have been theft. I wasn’t out anything. I had a story I could tell forever. I wasn’t going to extort money from anyone.
We were later interviewed by several officials from different agencies. When the report was released, the cause of the accident was determined to be pilot error.
On Monday, the event’s 10th anniversary, Arum told me how he had received a slew of letters from people who had read about his accident or saw him on television talking about it.
He kept one, he said. It was from the late Yankees owner, George Steinbrenner.
“He wrote, ‘What a great promoter you are, staging an accident like that to drum up interest in your fight,’ ” Arum said, laughing. “I loved that one.”
A month later, the fight was outstanding, De La Hoya winning by 11th round stoppage. Vargas tested positive for steroids and was suspended for nine months and fined $100,000.
But I’ll never think of that fight without thinking of that day in Big Bear 10 years ago, when I walked off a wrecked plane with nary a scratch and the story of a lifetime.