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TODAY
Three people were left dead after a mid-air plane collision over Boulder, Colo., on Saturday. Brandi Hepburn, her son Javin McDonald and pilot Reuben Bakker survived the ordeal.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 2/9/2010 11:11:52 AM ET 2010-02-09T16:11:52

Brandi Hepburn doesn’t remember a lot because it all happened so quickly. One moment she was sitting in the back seat of a glider with her 11-year-old son, being towed up for a pleasant flight over Boulder, Colo. An instant later, the tow plane was rammed by another small plane, and Hepburn and her son were flying through a searing fireball.

Three people were killed, and the death toll could have been more if not for one pilot’s quick thinking.

“I felt the heat on my forehead as we flew through the flames,” Hepburn told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira Tuesday in New York. “I was horrified.”

The deadly drama was still fresh in her mind. Just three days earlier, on Saturday, Hepburn had taken her son, Javen McDonald, and her daughter to Boulder Municipal Airport. A friend was celebrating his 40th birthday by taking a group of people gliding.

In all, three gliders were involved: one for the birthday boy, one for Hepburn’s daughter and her friend, and one for the mother and son. Hepburn’s own mother came along and watched from the ground.

Two of the gliders were already into their flights as Hepburn’s plane, piloted by Reuben Bakker, was towed to 10,000 feet, where it would be released for the 45-minute glide back to the ground. Piloting the tow plane was 25-year-old Alexander Gilmer of Mile High Gliding.

Flight seemed perfect
It was an overcast day, but visibility was excellent as they slowly climbed past 8,000 feet.

Bakker, who joined Hepburn and Javen on TODAY, saw another glider pass them on its descent and pointed it out to Hepburn, telling the woman her daughter was inside. Hepburn turned to film her daughter.

Everything seemed perfect.

“We were kind of just seeing things as we were going along. We were doing like 70 miles per hour, 200 feet behind the tow plane,” Bakker told Vieira. “Suddenly, I saw a plane to the right. It looked like it was going to hit us.”

TODAY
Javen McDonald, left, and his mother Brandi Hepburn went gliding on Saturday for a friend's 40th birthday celebration.

The second plane, a single-engined Cirrus, was piloted by Bob Matthews, 58, who was taking his brother, Mark, 56, for a ride.

Investigators don’t know how the accident happened. Neither plane was violating any flight rules. All Bakker knows is that somebody wasn’t paying enough attention to other traffic.

Thinking that the Cirrus was going to hit his plane or the tow cable, Bakker reached for the tow-release lever.

‘You can't think’
“By the time my hand was on it, it collided straight into the right side of my tow plane,” Bakker said. “This happened really fast. The wings folded up on the tow plane. It was instant. There was a huge fireball.”

Image: A burning aircraft falls to the ground Saturday
Shano Kelley  /  AP
Glider pilot Reuben Bakker cut loose from the aircraft towing his glider and flew through the fireball to safety from the deadly midair crash.

Bakker, an experienced pilot and flight instructor, said he responded instinctively, not even knowing if the cable had yet released.

“You can’t think. You just have to know,” he told Vieira. “I pitched back, banked to the right, and we just flew straight through fire,” Bakker told Vieira. “I didn’t see wreckage anymore because it was gone. Everything was red.”

That’s when Hepburn felt the heat on her forehead and saw the wreckage of the two planes fall to the ground in a trail of black smoke. The tow plane plummeted. The Cirrus drifted gently down, its flaming fuselage held up by a parachute that deploys in case the plane is crippled.

Gilmer and the two Matthews brothers were killed.

“Watching it fall to the ground knowing that I don’t think that anybody made it, I was horrified,” Hepburn said.

After getting through the fireball, Bakker got on his radio and made a Mayday call to the airfield.

TODAY
Firefighters hose down the wreckage of the midair collision that left three men dead.
“I told them the tow plane had just been taken out by the Cirrus. Everybody was so much in shock that I had to say it a couple times,” Bakker said.

Hepburn’s son Javen told Vieira he had no idea what had happened, but he thought at first it was some sort of training exercise.

“I thought it was some kind of test run like if training pilots knew what they would do if they got in a crash,” he said. Soon enough, he learned the awful truth.

On the ground, Hepburn’s mother was also filled with terror. She knew that three gliders had gone up, but she could see only two of them coming down. It was only when she was hugging Hepburn that she knew her family was safe.

Hepburn is certain that it was only because of Bakker’s quick and instinctive actions that she and Javen could be in New York to talk about their close call with death.

“If it would have been another pilot, I don’t know that we’d be here,” she said.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Pilot saves passengers' lives from crash

  1. Closed captioning of: Pilot saves passengers' lives from crash

    >>> story. today, investigators in boulder, colorado, are trying to figure out what led to a fiery midair collision over the weekend that left three people dead. as tragic as it was, three more people could have died if not for the quick thinking of their pilot. we're going to talk to him and his two passengers in just a moment, but first, here's nbc's lee cowan.

    >> reporter: when brandy hepburn and her son jaden were strapped into the cockpit of a glider near boulder, colorado, saturday, they thought they were going for the ride of their life. turns out, it was almost their last. the piper pawnie that towed their glider up to altitude was piloted by 25-year-old alex gilmer . photos that day show it was a serene view, but at just over 8,000 feet, trouble.

    >> we heard a boom, and we immediately saw two flames.

    >> reporter: witnesses looked up to see an airplane plummeting back to earth in front of a trail of black smoke . 911 calls started pouring in.

    >> yeah, we just saw a plane crash or something. it exploded in the air.

    >> reporter: the ntsb says the wreckage everyone saw was what was left of this plan, a sirus sr-20. on board, brothers mark and bob matthews. investigators believe they somehow had flown straight into alex gilmer 's tow plane, the one with the glider tied behind it. gilmer and the two matthews brothers all died. the three planes were on a collision course . miraculously, though, the glider 's pilot, reuben backer, had a few extra seconds of warning. he saw the collision was imminent. he quickly unhooked the glider 's tether with not a second to spare and flew right through the collision's fireball. it could have just as easily claimed him and his two passengers.

    >> i would say that they are very lucky. i hate to quantify something and not be factual, but there are very lucky.

    >> reporter: backer's glider with brandy and jaden on board landed safely, only to learn the fate of the other two planes. wreckage was scattered for more than a mile and a half. the cause of the collision still a mystery. for "today," lee cowan, nbc news, los angeles .

    >> glider pilot reuben backer and passengers brandy hepburn and jaden mcdonnell are here to speak out for the very first time. good morning, everybody. i really feel like it's a miracle that you all are alive, and actually, great work on your part, ruben. take us back to that moment on saturday. you are piloting the glider , brandy and her son are in it with you. you're about 8,000 feet, heading up to 10,000. you actually spot another glider with brandy 's daughter in it. you say to her, oh, look, there's your daughter.

    >> yep. pointed it out.

    >> then what happened?

    >> then we actually noticed another plane just off to the right. looked kind of just, i was seeing things as we were going along. we were doing about 70 miles an hour, 200 feet behind the tow plane, and suddenly, i saw a plane to the right. looked like it was going to hit us. i reached for the tow release, which is just right here. i reached, by the time my hand was on it and actually collided right on the right side of my tow plane.

    >> so, you are still attached to the tow plane at that point.

    >> yeah. this happened really fast. i mean, i don't know how fast the other plane was going, but it came straight on the side. the time it took for my hand to go here to there, it had already hit the wings folded up on the tow plane, and it was instant it was a huge fireball. i wasn't sure if i was released yet, because it was really quick. i pitched back to the right and we just flew straight through fire. i didn't see the wreckage anymore because it was gone, because everything was red.

    >> brandy , what is going through your mind at that point, because did you see the impact as well?

    >> i did. i was horrified. i felt the heat on my forehead as we flew through the flames, and i -- just watching it fall to the ground knowing that i don't think that anybody made it, i was horrified.

    >> and jaden , i understand you thought, at first, you thought this can't be real.

    >> yeah. i thought it was some sort of test run, like if training pilots knew what they would do if they got in a crash, and i kind of hoped that happened, too.

    >> and then when you realized that it was real?

    >> i don't really know.

    >> yeah. i'm sure everything is just -- i mean, seconds must feel like minutes or hours to you at that point. you're at 8,000, and you told me in the break before we started the interview that you really should be at 10,000. so, it was risky even to try to bring the glider in at eight.

    >> right, that's not a place you would release. that's never -- we don't release there anyways. that's just the part we take to get up, you know, just behind boulder, and 10,600 is a safe altitude for this ride and we were just on our way up there. so you know -- i mean, i did have enough time after we came back around, we flew through the smoke, i actually made the may day, may day, and told them that the tow plane just got taken out by the sirus and everyone was so much in shock that i had to say it a couple times.

    >> it must have been very emotional when you finally got back on to the ground, brandy , with your family, because this started out as a lovely outing for a friend's birthday.

    >> right. my mom was on the ground and she knew that jaden and i were in a glider and my daughter and her friend were in a glider . there was three gliders in the air and they could only see two. she was horrified.

    >> do you credit this man with the fact that you and your son are alive?

    >> absolutely. if it would have been another pilot, i don't know that we'd be here.

    >> and were you just instinct took over, reuben , is that what it was?

    >> it really was. i mean, from when i saw the plane to when it was a fireball was being less than two seconds. and you know, the time it takes to move a hand is when i see to when it was fire, that doesn't -- you can't think. you just have to know, you have to do it.

    >> you have to react from all your training as a pilot. three other people did lose their lives, the two gentlemen in the sirus and then the pilot of the tow plane, alex gilmar, and you had almost in retrospect had an eerie conversation with him the day before about safety.

    >> right. because it wasn't ideal in the morning. we waited a bit and i asked him what do you think, and he said i think it's safe, but i don't think it's the best choice for having a paying customer for a scenic trip, but safetywise, he's like, reuben , it's fine. i asked him, because he went up first, and i asked how's the ride and he said it's smooth, it's going to be great. and i was like, well, thanks, and then he hopped in his tow plane and we hooked up and off he went.

    >> we're so glad you're alive, reuben , so glad you're the pilot that you are and brandi and jaden , so glad you're back and safe.

    >> us, too.

    >> now let's get a check

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