December 13, 2004 12:00 PM

They are very, very close-knit,” says Virginia Mortara, a Connecticut friend and neighbor of NBC Sports chairman Dick Ebersol and his family. “They did everything together. Summers on Martha’s Vineyard. Skiing in Telluride.” On the Saturday after Thanksgiving, they attended the USC-Notre Dame game in LA, where Willie, 18, the middle son of Ebersol and his wife, actress Susan Saint James, is a USC freshman.

The next day, Willie stayed behind in LA., while his parents and brothers Charlie, 21, and Teddy, 14, took a chartered flight to Telluride to drop off Saint James at their ski house. Dick and the boys remained aboard so they could continue on to South Bend, Ind., and drop off Charlie, a senior at Notre Dame. Fifty minutes later, something went tragically wrong.

According to witnesses the aircraft, a CL-601 Challenger jet, with the Ebersols and three crew members aboard, taxied at 9:59 a.m. at Montrose Regional Airport in wet snow and 50 yards’ visibility. Taking off, the plane barely got aloft. Seconds later it slammed down at the end of the small, 7,500-ft. runway, crashing through a fence and skidding another quarter mile onto a neighboring dairy-cow farm.

“I looked up and saw this plane on fire coming at me,” says dairy worker Sabas Bravo. “It was in what seemed like slow motion. It was making little ‘poof sounds, like tiny explosions. There was smoke all around, and then the plane stopped 20 yards from where I was. I just stood there, afraid, watching it burn.” Other witnesses rushed to the rescue. “I saw this kid [Charlie] waving his arms,” says Doug Percival, a tow-truck driver whose shop is adjacent to the airport. “He was screaming to me, ‘My brother was in the plane! He’s in the fourth row. Please help me get him out.’ ” Thrown clear of the plane, Charlie had already rushed back inside and pulled his father to safety. “His dad was sitting on the ground behind him, and he was just rocking,” says Percival. “I could tell he was in shock. His clothes were all shredded. Both he and Charlie were ripped out of their shoes.”

On the other side of the wreckage, Percival saw the plane’s nose cone broken off and three people thrown clear. Pilot Luis Espaillat, 50, and flight attendant Warren T. Richardson III, 36, were dead at the scene. The copilot, Eric Wicksell, 30, was rushed to a Denver burn unit in critical condition. Ebersol, 57, who sustained broken ribs, a broken sternum and fluid in his lungs, and Charlie, who broke a hand and injured his back, were taken to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction, Colo., an hour from the crash site, where they were soon joined by Saint James, 58, and, several hours later, by Willie.

On Monday night searchers at the site found Teddy’s body. “Teddy Ebersol was thrown from the aircraft, and it landed on top of him,” says Montrose County Coroner Mark Young. Investigators also recovered the plane’s voice recorder, which they hope will pin-point the cause of the accident. “We’re not ruling out anything at this point,” National Transportation Safety Board investigator Arnold Scott told reporters on Tuesday. Possible problems included ice on the wings—the pilot didn’t request that the plane be deiced before takeoff, nor was he offered that option—excess baggage and fuel weight, and hydroplaning on the slushy airstrip. It could be a year before a final report is issued.

Meanwhile, the Ebersols issued their own statement to the media. “We will miss Teddy, our sweet boy, forever,” it read. “His wonderful spirit will live on in our family…. While our grief is unfathomable, we are so proud of our Charlie, who pulled his father from the flames. That anyone was able to survive this horrible accident is a miracle, and all of us will forever be inspired by Charlie’s courage and bravery.”

Friends and colleagues also paid their respects. “I can’t imagine, none of us can imagine, the heartbreak he is going through,” says CBS Sports president Sean McManus, an Ebersol protégé. “The good thing is that he has an enormous amount of very loyal friends and family. Hopefully he will pull through this with their help.”

Mike Upton. Ron Arias in Montrose, Len Hochberg in Los Angeles and Rebecca Paley in New York City

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