n the predawn hours of Feb. 15, 1961, the messages carved like stilettos through the transoceanic phone lines to the households of the Jelineks in Oakville, Ontario, and the Hanlons on Marlborough Street in Boston.
''Did any of your family members have tickets on Flight 548?''
''Then they're dead.''
Newspaper reporters were performing a detested duty they considered vulturish, but the conclusion had been inescapable. The passenger manifest for Sabena Flight 548 from New York to Brussels included the names of brother and sister Otto and Maria Jelinek, the Canadian national pairs figure skating champions, and Lorraine Hanlon, the US junior ladies' titleholder. Flight 548 was now an inferno in a Belgian farm field, where it had crashed while trying to land in Brussels. Everyone on board the Boeing 707 had been killed. Therefore, Otto and Maria Jelinek and Lorraine Hanlon must be dead, and reactions from their families must be obtained.
''So how does it feel?''
Those reactions, initially traumatic, were ultimately ones of relief. Two hideous mistakes had been made, but they had happy endings. Yes, Flight 548 had crashed, leaving a shuddering wake of death and no survivors. But no, Otto and Maria Jelinek and Lorraine Hanlon had not been on board.
Oh, they should have been. But because of random quirks of circumstance, they had avoided the death trap on which 72 people - including the entire 18-member US figure skating team and its 16-person support group - were killed.
The Jelineks and Hanlon - just like, to a lesser extent, Mary Louise Wright, Ron Ludington, Barbara Ann Roles, and Bobby Brewer - had been near misses of a tragedy.
Grounded by his coach
Otto Jelinek was as red as an autumn maple leaf. One by one, passengers were filing by him - fellow passengers, they were supposed to be - onto the tarmac of Runway 22 at Idlewild Airport a few minutes after 7 p.m. on Feb. 14. Some Valentine's Day, Jelinek thought. Here were all his buddies - granted, representing a different country, but close friends nonetheless -headed buoyantly onto Sabena Flight 548 for the trip to the world championships in Prague by way of Brussels. Two days earlier at the North American championships in Philadelphia, where he and Maria had won, some of his US friends - pairs champions Dudley Richards and Maribel Owen Jr., among others - had invited them to join the American team on 548. No problem, figured Otto; international travel was decidedly more informal in those days, and besides, his coach, Bruce Hyland, wouldn't mind.
Right. Hyland didn't care. Just one proviso.
''You're not going if I don't go with you,'' said the coach. ''I don't want you out of my sight. I'm afraid you'll be drinking beer and doing I don't know what else.''
He sure did know what else. Left to his own devices, Otto Jelinek would ardently pursue female companionship as well as libation, for by his own description, he was ''a normal thirsty, horny 20-year-old.''
With no place to roam. Hyland's stipulation essentially rendered Jelinek's ticket to 548 useless. Hyland had to hurry home to Toronto, where his wife, Margaret, was about to give birth, and if he didn't get back in time . . .
No trip, Otto thought dolefully as the doors to 548 closed and the plane taxied along Runway 22. Hyland hadn't shown; Jelinek would have to wait for him. He was barred from a trip on his own like some kid who hadn't cleaned his room. Needless to say, ''I was furious,'' Jelinek said. And his mood didn't improve when Hyland finally arrived and Otto and 18-year-old Maria took a later KLM flight with him to Prague.
When they landed at midday on Feb. 15 after a stopover in Amsterdam, they looked around the Prague airport and saw no familiar faces.
''Where's the US team?'' Otto asked a Czechoslovakian official. ''They were supposed to land an hour ago.''
The official paused ominously. ''They're not coming,'' he said at last. ''Their plane crashed a few hours ago. They're all dead.''
The Canadian team's reaction was unanimous and immediate, Jelinek would forever recall: ''We all went bananas.''
So did his parents back in Ontario, but at least their agony was short-lived. Before saying goodbye to their children, the Jelineks had asked a Toronto Star reporter, Jim Proudfoot, to keep an eye on the two. Proudfoot went beyond the call of duty. He got on the phone to dictate his story on the US disaster, then asked one of the editors on the Star desk to call the Jelineks and tell them the kids were all right.
Except for an overwhelming case of grief. And a chilling realization: ''I'm alive,'' Otto Jelinek knew, ''because my coach's wife had a kid.''
Bound by school ties
Lorraine Hanlon's close call wasn't as immediate but didn't leave much leeway. Despite her victory at the nationals in Colorado Springs two weeks earlier, she wouldn't be competing in Prague because juniors weren't eligible for the world championships. But as the first alternate, she had been invited on the trip to participate in a series of exhibitions that would follow the competition.
It seemed like a dream opportunity for a 15-year-old, but Hanlon's teachers at the exclusive Winsor School in Boston, where she was a junior, didn't share her enthusiasm. Just the opposite. Hanlon had discovered that as an unofficial pipeline to Harvard, ''Winsor was not what you might say outside-Winsor-activity-friendly.''
You might say that. Or you might more accurately say that Winsor vehemently opposed Hanlon's skating, regarding it almost with a sense of shame. The school instructed Hanlon not to mention its name if she engaged in a tawdry indulgence such as a newspaper interview. And any publications making reference to Hanlon's - you should pardon the expression - skating were removed from Winsor's sacred library shelves posthaste.
When she competed in the 1961 nationals, Hanlon was ordered to take her Winsor exams at Colorado College at the exact time her classmates were doing so in Boston, ''as if someone was going to call me and tell me the answer.''
The prospect of the Prague trip created the ultimate showdown. Hanlon was advised that if she decided to make the trip, she'd best choose another school when she got back.
Hanlon agonized over the decision, even after she and her mother, Marguerithe, who would have accompanied her as a chaperone, received their plane tickets. The day before 548's departure, Hanlon secluded herself in her room for hours, wanting no outside influences, and reached the demoralizing decision.
''As you might imagine, at 15 I really wanted to go,'' she said. But as a high school student casting an eye toward Harvard and a career as a physician, she didn't want to jeopardize her academic situation. So, in tears, she came out of her room and announced to her parents, ''I'm not going on the trip.''
The following night, while 548 was airborne, Hanlon had a disturbing dream: ''Something had been on fire. There was a large holocaust of flame.''
The next morning, Hanlon awoke to the brutal reality. Her mother came rushing to her room just after dawn and announced, ''They're all dead.''
The senior Hanlons had received the news in cold-blooded fashion.
At the moment Gordon Hanlon answered a New York reporter's phone call and was advised that his wife and daughter had been killed, his wife was standing beside him and his daughter was sleeping fitfully upstairs. Marguerithe Hanlon shuddered to think what the impact could have been on her husband: ''What would have happened if Lorraine and I had been in New York or away training? Gordon might have thought we'd changed our minds at the last minute and gone.''
As it was, Lorraine was benumbed by the news. ''I'd seen some of these people every day since the age of 7,'' she said. ''I knew not just the kids but whole families from being with them all at the rink every day.''
At her parents' urging, Lorraine went to school that day. She was paralyzed with anguish, yet surprised by the reaction at school. ''It was weird,'' she would remember. ''They never mentioned my skating at school, but two or three people came up to me and said, `This must be very difficult for you.' ''
Even more difficult to comprehend. The situation was ''numbing, ironic'' to Hanlon. ''I was so angry for the school not allowing me to do something good, and it had saved my life.''
The breakup party following the North American championships had been a brief interlude for many, a temporary farewell for some.
Mary Louise Wright was in the latter category, having switched from the former. All the US competitors in the North Americans would be heading on to New York and the takeoff for the world chanmpionships in two days. Wright would be heading home to Belmont, Mass.
She could have joined the skaters on the trip. She had been invited to serve as one of the judges at Prague, but the worlds would conflict with her mother's scheduled surgery in Wright's native St. Paul. Wright wanted to be at her mother's side. So she declined the judging honor six weeks before the worlds.
In Philadelphia during the party following the North American competition, two of Wright's Bay State friends - Winchester's Laurence Owen, the newly crowned US ladies' singles champion, and her older sister Maribel - said their reluctant goodbyes.
The girls put on mock pout expressions as they told Wright, ''We're still mad you're not going with us.''
''But I'll be the first one on the plane next year,'' Wright assured them.
The girls brightened.
''OK, a deal,'' they said.
''OK, a deal,'' echoed Wright.
The deal was never consummated. Instead, Wright wound up bidding farewell to them at a memorial services in Winchester. And she never did make it out to Minnesota for her mother's operation. Rampant death intervened. Mary Louise and her husband, figure skating administrator and historian Ben Wright, ''never went to so many wakes and funerals in our lives,'' she recalled.
But Wright didn't dwell on the fact that hers could have been one of them.
''I didn't think of it in that way,'' she said. ''I'm not that type of person.''
Besides, she was focused only on consoling the bereaved.
Afforded second chance
Ron Ludington was forced to offer a Philadelphia farewell, too. That wasn't the way he wanted things, but finances dictated his decision.
Ludington had retired from competitive skating after winning a bronze medal in the 1960 Olympic pairs at Squaw Valley. Now he had embarked on a career as a coach, based for the time being in Norwalk, Conn., and living in humble conditions at the YMCA there.
One set of his pupils - husband-and-wife ice dancers Robert and Patricia Dineen of New York - had qualified for Prague, and at the North American breakup, they asked Ludington one more time if he could accompany them.
Unfortunately, he told them, there had been no change in his status. He couldn't afford to pay his own way to Prague, and the Dineens were in no position to underwrite their coach's trip.
Besides, said Ludington, ''I had to get back for work the next day.''
So he said his hasty goodbyes and rushed back to Norwalk. Three days later, his routine was disrupted when a friend knocked on his door at the Y and told him of the crash.
Ludington was ''kind of overwhelmed. I lost so many friends in that crash, plus the kids I was coaching.''
Now based at the University of Delaware, he has gone on to an illustrious career as coach of, among others, 1984 Olympic pairs silver medalists Peter and Kitty Carruthers of Burlington, Mass. But there is one mathematical fact he cannot forget. Beginning as a competitor in 1957, Ludington was on the scene for every world championship until the end of the century.
''Except for '61,'' he said. ''Oh yeah, it occurred to me that that could have been me.''
There was no such grisly last-minute drama for Barbara Ann Roles and Bobby Brewer. They were spared by whimsy rather than fortune.
With the retirement of 1960 Olympic gold medalists Carol Heiss and David Jenkins, Roles and Brewer loomed as heirs apparent as national champions. But before ascending the throne, they, too, decided to retire, for different reasons.
Roles got married and gave birth to a child. ''Believe me, I don't know what it was,'' she said, ''but retirement saved my life. I was horrified . . . I couldn't really believe it. For a long time, it felt like all my friends just hadn't gotten back yet.''
Brewer had decided the cost would be prohibitive to continue amateur skating. He wanted to become a pilot and a doctor, and his parents, who ran a dry cleaning business in Los Angeles, ''had been bled dry by my skating,'' he said. So he turned pro, and at the 1961 nationals, he watched Bradley Lord of Swampscott capture the men's singles. No less an authority than renowned coach Maribel Vinson Owen - mother of Laurence and Maribel Jr. - knew it could have been otherwise. Standing beside Brewer at rinkside in Colorado Springs, she told him, ''Bradley's never beaten you. That could have been you out there.''
Which would have earned him a reservation on Flight 548. ''Had I stayed an amateur,'' said Brewer, ''I absolutely would have been on that plane.''
Instead, he was asleep when his father burst into his room and said, ''They're all dead.''
A groggy Brewer demanded, ''What are you talking about?''
''All your friends,'' said his father. ''In a plane crash.''
Roles returned quickly to skating and won the 1962 US title in Boston. She didn't come back in order to ruthlessly capitalize on the absence of her top competition. She was instead responding to the US Figure Skating Association's plea that she return in order to partially fill the void left by the sudden loss of an entire generation of contenders.
She hadn't thought of the career possibility before the Flight 548 tragedy, but she went on to become a top instructor, coach of 1995 US champion Nicole Bobek, and is now based in Las Vegas. The crash ''was probably one of the reasons that drove me to be a coach,'' she said. ''I was grateful for being alive and I needed to give something back to skating.''
Dr. Robert Brewer abandoned skating when he'd raised enough funds for flight training and medical school. He became a Marine fighter pilot and flight surgeon and is now a psychiatrist in Arizona. His decision obviously worked out for the best, but there have been times he couldn't avoid a certain mind-set.
''I remember coming up for the bicentennial in Boston in 1976 from Philadelphia, where I was a resident in psychiatry,'' he said. ''When I got to Boston, I had this strange feeling I should be calling all these people. It's still like a dream, all these people plucked out of my life.''
Out of respect for the dead, the world championships were canceled in 1961. Prague got a delayed opportunity to host them the following year, and Otto and Maria Jelinek experienced deferred catharsis.
They had been particularly anxious about venturing behind the Iron Curtain because they were Czechoslovakian natives who, with their parents, fled to Canada under cover of darkness in 1948 after the Communist regime took over their homeland.
In fact, they had good reason to be concerned. The Czech government initially denied their entry visas for the world championships. Only when the International Skating Union intervened, threatening to withdraw the event from Prague, did the host country agree not to detain any of the skaters after the competition.
Still, for Otto Jelinek, the trip was ''doubly nerve-wracking because I didn't know if I would be thrown into the army.''
Instead, the expatriate Jelineks recorded one of the most poignant triumphs in figure skating history. Dressed in the indigenous garb of their birthplace for their free skating program, they captivated an audience that officially had regarded them as nonpersons for more than a decade.
Their world victory was partially a tribute to their deceased colleagues. ''We remembered them,'' said Otto. ''It was a spur.''
After that, they retired from competitive skating. ''What more could we do?'' said Otto. ''We'd won the world title in the city of our birth in the first international event since the Iron Curtain began in 1948. If we'd won 10 world championhips, it would have been an anticlimax after that.''
At any rate, that was merely the beginning of Otto's varied and public string of successes. He became a wealthy Canadian businessman. He served as that nation's Minister of Sport, Health, and Education, spearheading the successful 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary. And following the collapse of the Iron Curtain, he returned to his native Prague, where he is now CEO of the Czech Republic arm of the multinational auditing firm Deloitte & Touche.
But none of the triumphs can erase the impact of Feb. 15, 1961.
''There was a sense that they were all gone,'' said Jelinek. ''Was that right? No - we should've been with them. There was a certain sense of guilt in the early years.''
Even now, he said, ''It's something that's always in our hearts. You can't put it away in a corner of your mind and forget. You feel closer to the tragedy because you realize you missed it by the skin of your teeth.''
Lorraine Hanlon had been raised to be a stoic, and she put on a strong facade through most of the services following the crash.
''Even though she was by far the youngest at the memorials,'' said her mother, ''people were coming up and crying on her shoulder. Finally, she broke down and I had to pull her away because it was too much for her.''
Hanlon didn't consider quitting skating, ''but I have an almost blank period,'' she said. ''I don't remember skating that spring. I can't remember what the rink was like.''
It was in fact a forum for success. Hanlon became the US silver medalist the following year and won the senior ladies' title in 1963. Still, she retired before the '64 Olympics.
''I can't say it was the aftereffects of the crash,'' she mused, ''but there was some sort of emotional weariness. I didn't want to keep going. I just felt it was time to move on to something else.''
Something else was Harvard and a career in medicine. A former practicing physician, Hanlon now does medical research in California. Through it all, the scenario surrounding Flight 548 has been a major influence in her life.
''It was such a momentous event that it undeniably changed my perspective,'' she said. ''That one-time loss of so many friends, that `there but for the grace of God went I,' is always there lurking beneath the surface.''
And there is no escaping the fact that - like Otto Jelinek and Mary Louise Wright and Ron Ludington and Bobby Brewer and Barbara Ann Roles - Hanlon has had almost four decades to ponder what might have been and what never was for those aboard Flight 548.
''I got 40 years that they didn't,'' she said. ''They deserved it, too. They deserved some time when the pressure was off, some time just to take a stroll in the woods. I'm sure every one of those people would have done something good with those 40 years.''
Instead, those futures, those possibilities, became interred in a Belgian chicory field, forever scarred by tragedy.