When I was 12 years old, something extraordinary happened to me, something that helped shape the person I have become. I met Michael Matz. July 19, 1989. The day started normally enough. My brothers, Jody (14) and Travis (9), and I were flying alone to visit our grandma. We were bumped from our intended flight onto United Flight 232 from Denver to Chicago. A short time into the flight, the plane shook, and the pilot announced we were going to be making an emergency landing in Sioux City, Iowa. What he failed to mention was that the hydraulics had been severed and the plane had no steering, brakes, or landing gear. After about 40 minutes Captain Al Haynes and his co-pilots managed to get us close to the ground. During that time the stewardesses taught us how to brace ourselves for impact and what to do when we landed. The plane hit the runway, cartwheeled, broke into several pieces, and caught fire. Our section of the plane landed upside down in the middle of a cornfield; my brothers and I were, amazingly, uninjured. We unbuckled our seatbelts and fell to the ceiling. Michael, the man sitting next to Travis, asked if we were OK, then took our hands and guided us off the plane. We had to step through overhead compartments, luggage, and corn, lots of corn. We held on to Michael as he navigated the way to the exit and we walked out of the plane into a cornfield. Michael made sure the three of us were together and told us to run and not look back. So we ran. He then turned and went back into the plane. Michael is a very special person, and I can't say what would have happened to us had he not been there. Helping us off the plane isn't what makes Michael a hero. However, his actions the following 24 hours do. We were three young children, without parents, without cell phones, without any way of taking care of ourselves, and we were in a frightening situation. I'm not sure how we met back up with Michael and his now wife, DD; they seem ever-present in my memories of that day. In all the chaos they found us, and never left our sides. They stuck us in a tent in the triage area so we didn't see all the terrible things that we could have seen. They made sure we were accounted for and fed. When ambulances came to take survivors to the hospital, Michael and DD made sure we traveled as a unit of five. They kept us away from the reporters. They distracted us from the trauma and tracked down our parents. They said they wouldn't leave until we were with our parents, and they meant it. This simple act allowed us to stay children. In all the craziness that I'm sure happened that day, I remember eating ice cream sandwiches and watching cartoons. I wasn't scared. We really didn't even know the magnitude of the accident until much later, and were able to fly home the next day. This is because of Michael and DD Matz. Our lives changed after that. Not in the way many people think, but actually in a good way. After the plane crash, we no longer worried about trivial things. Instead, my family went rock climbing, or traveling, or just talked. We understood what was important and kept life in perspective.
Now I'm lucky enough to be happily married and stay home with my 3 1/2-year-old boy and 1-year-old little girl. I'm so thankful that I have no residual trauma from that day, that I'm able to talk about it, and I hope if something like this happens to my children, they have a Michael to protect them. We've kept up with Michael though the years. It's hard to lose track of someone who pops up every few years with another amazing achievement. When he carried the United States flag at the closing ceremonies of the 1996 Summer Olympics, I had my entire freshman engineering class watch. And on May 6, my family will be cheering for Barbaro.