On a clear Denver morning, nine days after his previous Continental Airlines flight had taken off in a near blizzard and slammed back to earth upside down, Bob Linck, 60, tried again. This time, recovering from injuries suffered in the crash last month that killed 28 passengers and crew, he went aboard in a wheelchair.
His left leg protruded stiffly, his burned-raw hands were encased in sterile gloves, and his scalp looked puffy and slightly askew after being sewn back on. He grimaced, pain mingling with trepidation, as he took his complimentary seat in the first-class cabin. “I can’t believe I’m giving them a second shot at me,” he said.
With him were his wife, Joanne, 58, and their two daughters, Beverly Farrand, 35, and Karen, 31, who had been flown out by the airline to comfort him on the trip home. He sat for a few moments with his eyes closed, the leg with the torn knee ligaments projecting into the aisle. The captain of the plane, Lowell Johnson, 51, walked back from the cockpit to reassure Linck that he had been flying for 31 years and intended to get him to Newark Airport safely.
Linck was one of 54 survivors of the crash of Flight 1713, and among the dead were the pilot, co-pilot and an attendant. He looked up at Johnson.
“I’m sorry about what happened to your friends,” he said.
Johnson nodded: “I’m sorry for what happened to you.”
Linck, who once flew single-engine seaplanes, and Johnson chatted about old times and old airplanes for a few minutes, then the captain returned to his controls. As the plane rumbled down the runway, Linck sat up rigidly, listening intently for the same noises he heard when Flight 1713 broke up. His head glistened, mostly from the protective ointment covering his wounds, but there was perspiration too, and he wiped the sleeve of his sweat suit across his forehead. The plane lifted cleanly, and Linck smiled weakly. “Well, we got farther than last time,” he said.
Early on the morning of Sunday, Nov. 15, Linck and his wife set out from Green Pond, N.J., to Newark. He makes the trip daily, driving to his job as vice-president of the wedding ring division of Krementz & Co., but on this day he was en route to the airport. He was catching the first leg of a flight to Lewiston, Idaho, where he planned to hunt white-tailed deer. “After we pulled out of the driveway,” says Linck, an avid trophy hunter, “a gorgeous buck bounded out of the woods, stood in the road, looked at us. I said to my wife, ‘That’s a good omen.’ ” (His daughter Beverly later told him, “Dad, it was the Great Deer God warning you to lighten up on the deer.”)
His plane was late landing in Denver due to the bad weather, and he was told his connecting flight to Boise had been canceled. Continental put him on Flight 1713, not scheduled to leave for three hours, and he received a seat assignment in row 15, near the back of the plane. Once all the passengers were aboard, the plane taxied out into the whirling snowstorm and was sprayed with deicing fluid. Then another 20 minutes or so passed before the flight was cleared for takeoff. From his aisle seat, Linck looked out and thought he saw ice building up on the wings, but he wasn’t alarmed. Even though he had once piloted small planes, he figured that the captain of the DC-9 knew more than he did.
“The passenger next to me put down his crossword puzzle, and we both looked,” Linck said. “To our novice eyes there was as much ice on the wings as before the deicing. But I said to him, ‘I’m sure the pilots don’t want to kill themselves. They know what they’re doing.’ Everything was smooth until we lifted off, then the plane started shaking violently. There was an explosion, and a ball of fire shot up through the floor, sheer white heat, enveloping the two rows ahead of me. I said, ‘I think we’ve had it.’ I tried to stand up, get away from the flames. That’s how I got the [second-degree] burns on my hands. I heard three explosions, then the lights went out and people started screaming. First the right wing dropped, and then the left wing dropped. I think the pilot overcorrected to the left. The plane flipped.
“In that last blinding second before we hit, I only thought one thing: I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. We smacked the ground with an impact so severe—I’ve been hit hard playing football but never like that. In the minutes after, there was not a single sound. It was utterly silent and totally black. That, believe me, was frightening. I was lying flat on my chest and I couldn’t see a thing. I wondered if that fireball had set the plane on fire, if I’d be burned to death. Then somebody, a passenger or a ground crewman, came through and said not to panic, there was no fire. I knew there was nothing critically wrong with me except I was bleeding from head wounds. It was a scalping, like when the cowboys and Indians went at it. The only part of me that was free was my right hand. I reached down through an opening in the fuselage and touched dirt.”
The plane had risen about 50 feet in the air and was traveling at about 170 mph when it crashed seconds after takeoff, cart wheeled on a wingtip and landed upside down. Linck, still strapped in his seat, had been hurled across the plane, leaving him cocooned in the wreckage with debris weighing him down. “I felt like the whole airplane was on top of me,” he said. “I found out later that some seats hadn’t broken loose and people were hanging upside down for hours, still strapped in.” The man with the crossword puzzle was nowhere around, but he survived. According to a reconstruction of the seating plan of the plane prepared by the Rocky Mountain News, none of the passengers in row 15 died. Of the four people enveloped by the fireball, at least one and very likely two died. During the 90 minutes that Linck waited for rescue, he lay atop a young girl who whimpered, “I can’t breathe; I’m going to die.” He assured her that if she was talking, she was breathing, and he suggested she pinch him occasionally to assure herself that somebody was there. Linck never did find out who the girl was, but he knows she was pulled to safety.
“I was very selfish lying there because I was mostly thinking, ‘My God, I’m alive,’ ” Linck said. “I had some other thoughts. I figured I wouldn’t get to go hunting this year. I thought that if I died, my younger daughter would be mad at me for missing her wedding next year and all my kids would think I did this to get out of taking them on the Caribbean cruise I promised them. But mostly I thought, ‘I’m alive.’ I kept hearing rescuers working their way through the plane, saying ‘body,’ but I didn’t get really frightened until the last few minutes, when I thought, ‘What if the plane suddenly bursts into flame?’ I heard one fireman tell another to keep spraying because of what had happened at another crash. I had a pretty bad heart attack in 1976, and I was trying to control myself, not have another one. When one of the firemen finally touched my hand and said it was my turn, my God, what a relief.”
The trip to Newark proceeded uneventfully, except for the moment when the flight attendant rushed out of the galley and collided with Linck’s injured knee. While consuming every course of his meal on the 3½-hour flight, Linck reflected on why he had been chosen to live. “I’m not saying the nonreligious died and the religious lived, but I am saying somebody decided who would live and who would not,” he said. “I don’t know what God has planned for me, but I hope it isn’t more severe than this.”
At home he was greeted by his two sons, his five grandchildren, a Welcome Back sign, a chocolate mousse cake and a grim joke from his son-in-law, George Farrand, 31: a homemade, battery-operated model jetliner designed to fly upside down. Linck hobbled over to an easy chair, sat down with a sigh and admitted that while he would rather have been hunting, all things considered, he was pleased to be home.
He has not slept through the night since the accident. He awakens every morning at about 3. Always, his thoughts are the same: “How lucky I was, how I could have burned up. All I can think about is how much worse it could have been.” After about an hour he falls asleep. His doctor suggested psychotherapy, but Linck figured he could work the problem out by himself, no surprise to his wife. “He’s able to cope with things like this easily,” she said. “He’s always looking for excitement, thrives on it. I guess over the years he’s learned to handle it.”
At the moment Linck is looking forward to spending more time with his family, even if it means taking that expensive Caribbean cruise. His children say they are looking forward to traveling the high seas with their indestructible dad because if the ship goes down, they want to be in his lifeboat.