Vicki Kennedy mourns death of senator who ‘saved Ted’s life’ in 1964 plane crash

"Ted never forgot it nor did the rest of our family."

Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), and Sen. Birch Bayh (D-Ind.), appeared at the Democratic Convention Banquet at Boston's War Memorial, June 9, 1966. Sen. Bayh delivered the main address. (AP Photo/Bob Daugherty)
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Sen. Birch Bayh appeared at the Democratic Convention Banquet at Boston's War Memorial in 1966. –Bob Daugherty / AP

Vicki Reggie Kennedy, the widow of Sen. Ted Kennedy, is mourning the passing of former Indiana Sen. Birch Bayh, who she credits with saving the life of her late husband more than a half-century ago.

Bayh, whose impactful legacy includes drafting both the Title IX sex anti-discrimination law and two constitutional amendments, died Thursday at the age of 91 at his home in Maryland.

“Birch and my late husband Ted Kennedy were both elected to the United States Senate in 1962, where they became fast friends and great colleagues, often working together to further our nation’s march for progress,” Kennedy said in a statement Thursday. “From civil rights to voting rights to equal rights, Birch made a lasting impact on generations, most notably by passing Title IX to ensure girls had the same opportunities as boys in school and on the playing field and giving 18-year-olds the right to vote.”

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However, as Kennedy noted, the Indiana Democrat left an especially enduring mark on her husband’s future.

“There is another, quite personal reason that Birch Bayh was special to our family — he saved Ted’s life,” she said.

Following the deaths of Kennedy’s older brother and sister in separate plane crashes in the 1940s and 35 years before his nephew and his family were tragically killed in plane crash off Martha’s Vineyard, the young Massachusetts senator had a very close call himself in a 1964 plane crash in the western part of the state.

The plane cabin pieced back together by investigators. Zimny was seated right front, beside Moss. Kennedy’s seat is back to Moss, facing the Bayhs. —File

En route to a Democratic State Endorsing Convention in West Springfield with Bayh and his wife, Marvella, the small chartered plane in which Kennedy and company were traveling flew too close to the ground during a thunderstorm and crashed in an apple orchard three miles short of the runway.

The crash killed the plane’s pilot, Edwin Zimny, and Edward Moss, an aide to Kennedy.

Kennedy told reporters afterward he remember a “terrific impact,” being thrown feet first against the plane’s ceiling, and “then there was a complete silence.”

In the immediate aftermath, Bayh and his wife, who suffered minor injuries, began looking for help amid the wreckage.

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“He called my name,” Kennedy told The New York Times from a hospital bed months later. “I could hear but I could not respond.”

Kennedy had broken three vertebrae and two ribs, among other injuries, and could not move from the waist down. But as Bayh began to smell gasoline fumes, he realized he had to his 32-year-old Senate colleague out of the plane. Despite injuries to his own arm, the then-36-year-old was able to pull Kennedy out through a plane window.

“Ted never forgot it nor did the rest of our family,” Kennedy’s second wife said in her statement Thursday.

“We’ve all heard adrenaline stories about how a mother can lift a car off a trapped infant,” Bayh recalled in 2009. “Well, Kennedy was no small guy, and I was able to lug him out of there like a sack of corn under my arm.”

Kennedy spent five months in the hospital recovering from the crash and would credit the experience for his lifelong advocacy for affordable health care — which culminated in the enactment of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, roughly seven months after his death.