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Survivors of midair plane crash ‘horrified’

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.”

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.”

Shano Kelley / AP
A burning aircraft falls to the ground Saturday, Feb. 5, 2010, after a midair collision with another private plane in Boulder, Colo. Two small planes collided in flames over Boulder's outskirts and killed all three people aboard, while a glider under tow by one aircraft cut loose and flew through the fireball to safety, officials and witnesses said. (AP Photo/Shano Kelley)

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.

“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.

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