By Alex Tresniowski
August 18, 2008 12:00 PM

The two men park near the bank of the river and hoist a metal canoe above their heads. They walk to the water, sharing the weight of the boat. There are dark clouds in the sky, and one of the men, David, says, “What if there’s lightning?” The other, Gary, says, “That’s okay—you’re taller. I figure it’ll hit you first.”

The men are friends, and they have been through storms before. Indeed, it was something much like a lightning strike—a random, powerful, devastating event—that forged their unlikely friendship. On Feb. 20, 1987, Gary Wright pulled into the parking lot of the computer maintenance company he owned in Salt Lake City and spotted a foot-long package studded with shiny nails in a parking spot. “I didn’t want anyone to run over it, so I picked it up,” recalls Wright, now 47 and a medical supplies salesman. “I could almost feel it click, and then there was this intense feeling of pressure. It kicked me back 20 feet.” The package exploded, shooting hundreds of wood slivers into Wright’s body. “The doctor said I looked like a porcupine. A nurse pulled a chunk of nail out of my chin. At one point I thought, ‘This is it. You’re going to die.’ ”

Wright soon learned he was a random victim of the Unabomber, an antitechnology terrorist behind a mysterious string of letter bombings that began in 1978. Wright suffered serious nerve damage in his left arm and hand and had to sleep with his arm suspended above him for months. And yet, he says, “the physical part was easy. After that, the emotional healing had to begin.”

That process took a leap forward in 1995, when The New York Times and The Washington Post published a 35,000-word manifesto by the Unabomber. Across the country from Wright, in Schenectady, N.Y., David Kaczynski, a social worker, and his wife, Linda, a philosophy professor, were struck by the familiarity of the writing; they suspected it might have been written by David’s brother Ted, a brilliant but troubled recluse living in a cabin in Montana. They took their suspicions to the FBI, and in April 1996—after 16 bombings and 3 deaths—police went to Ted Kaczynski’s cabin and arrested him there. “A brother protects a brother. But what if there was another attack?” David, 58, says now. “I was struggling to come to terms with the horrible harm my brother had done.”

Gary Wright, too, was struggling: He would flinch at fireworks and feel afraid whenever UPS delivered a package. Counseling helped; so did his Christian faith. “I was never going to be the same person I was, but I could still be happy,” he says. “I had to forgive this guy.” Later that same year he got a call from David Kaczynski, who felt the need to reach out to his brother’s victims—to focus on their pain, not his own. “I was really nervous,” says David of calling Gary. “I thought there could be anger.”

Instead Gary gave David advice on how to handle the guilt and the hurt. “Things get better,” he told him. “You might need someone to talk to.” David was flat-out stunned. “The person most willing to help me was the person my brother tried to kill,” he says. In 1998 they met for breakfast in a Salt Lake City diner shortly after Ted Kaczynski pleaded guilty. Gary, a fit and trim 5’8″, saw immediately that David, bulky at 6’1″, “was tentative; there was a fragility there. But I knew he wanted to talk, so I tried to make him comfortable. It was this intricate dance between us.” As the men relaxed, they found they shared many of the same beliefs and interests. “Gary was a football coach and I worked at a youth shelter, so we talked a lot about young people,” says David. “We talked about our wives. There was a sense we were just two average guys thrown into the American spotlight. We wound up talking for three hours.”

A few months later they met again at Ted Kaczynski’s sentencing, at which he was given four life terms plus 30 years (see box). David sat by himself, on the defense side. “I felt pretty alone,” he says. “But as Gary came down the aisle, he winked at me.” A year later the two men spoke together at a victims’ rights conference. “There was a real anti-Kaczynski attitude among some of the victims, and when Gary became friends with David, it isolated him from them,” says Tammy Wright, 47, Gary’s ex-wife. “But they just balance each other. They just fit.”

On 9/11 Gary knew that David was in Manhattan, so he called him to see if he was okay. “Everyone was calling their best friends,” says David, “and Gary called me.” In 2006 David took Gary to meet his mother, who told him, “Thank you for being so kind to my son.” Today they talk on the phone at least once a week “and ask each other advice about deep, intimate parts of our lives,” says Gary, who has a son, 19, and a daughter, 27. “I can’t think of one theme I’m not comfortable asking David about.” Lately they’ve been helping each other through tough times with their parents; Gary’s father has cancer, and David’s 91-year-old mother needs nurses to care for her. “I feel connected to Gary in a way that’s like a brother,” says David, who lives in Albany, N.Y. “I get a second chance to be there for somebody.” About four times a year they travel across the country for speaking appearances, savoring the long drives and laughing until they’re in tears. David still marvels at Gary’s openness and generosity; Gary loves David’s bone-dry sense of humor. “You just have to see them together to understand it,” says Gary’s son Garet, a sophomore in college. “It’s as close to a brothership as you can get.”

Whenever they can, Gary and David vacation together: to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown and canoeing on the Mohawk River in upstate New York last month. The two men, both damaged and linked by one shattering act, now find in each other’s company a way to feel whole again. “We have no defenses because of what we went through,” says David. “He feels like a brother to me.” Says Gary: “Will I always be there for him? Of course I will. He’s my friend.”