Edward M. Kennedy Escaped Death in 1964

In 1964, the young Sen. Kennedy survived a plane crash, and it changed him.

August 6, 2009, 6:24 PM

August 27, 2009 — -- Amid all the discussion of Sen. Edward Kennedy's legacy, his failed efforts to win the White House, and ruminations about "the Kennedy curse," there is also this: a long-ago episode in which he escaped that curse, and perhaps learned some lessons along the way.

In a way, Ted Kennedy was lucky to have lived as long as he did.

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On June 19, 1964, just seven months after his brother John had been assassinated in Dallas, Ted Kennedy came close to dying himself. He was badly injured in the crash of a small plane while campaigning for re-election to the Senate in Massachusetts. The experience changed him.

He was 32. He had won his seat just two years before in a special election. Now he was flying from Washington to West Springfield, Mass., for the state's Democratic convention, where he was to be renominated by acclamation. But June 19 was an important day, with the Senate passing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and it was evening before he could leave Washington.

Joining him on the flight were a fellow senator, the Indiana Democrat Birch Bayh, and his wife Marvella. Kennedy's legislative aide, Edward Moss, came along too. At the controls of the plane, a small twin-engine Aero Commander 680, was pilot Edwin Zimny.

As they headed north, the weather turned murky. Barnes Memorial Airport in Westfield, Mass., was socked in. Shortly after 11 p.m., Zimny tried to make an approach, flying on instruments.

Then the plane went into a dive.

"I was watching the altimeter and I saw it drop from 1,100 feet to 600 feet," Kennedy later told investigators from the Civil Aeronautics Board. "It was just like a toboggan ride, right along the tops of the trees for a few seconds. Then there was a terrific impact into a tree."

The plane crashed in an orchard three miles short of the runway. Birch and Marvella Bayh were not seriously hurt, but Moss and Zimny would die overnight from their injuries.

Kennedy had broken three vertabrae and two ribs, and had a collapsed lung. Birch Bayh dragged him free of the wreckage.

It may have been their positions in the plane that determined each person's fate. The Bayhs, sitting in the rear of the small plane, fared best. Moss and Zimny were up front. Kennedy was in the middle, in a rear-facing seat.

He would spend five months in the hospital -- five important months, as it turned out.

"He got to think about what he wanted to be as a senator," said Adam Clymer, a veteran newspaper reporter who is the author of "Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography."

Kennedy, confined in a special brace so that his broken back could heal, had time to read the books he had skipped in college, and to get tutorials from Harvard professors who came to visit.

How Ted Kennedy Cheated Death

Staffers set up an office in a room at the Boston hospital to which he was moved -- and from there, they helped him run his re-election campaign, sending out releases, among other things, to let people know how he would have voted on pieces of legislation if he had been on the Senate floor. His then-wife Joan worked the campaign trail on his behalf.

In a campaign commercial archived by the John F. Kennedy Library, Ted Kennedy appears in a hospital bed, reading. Then the camera looks straight down on him, and he speaks with a shy smile.

"Well, I'm coming along now," he says. "The doctors estimate that I'll be out of the hospital around Christmas time; I'm planning on Thanksgiving."

Then he gives a campaign pitch: "We must continue this effort to build a better Massachusetts, a stronger America, a world at peace. ... I want to be a part of that effort."

He won easily, and he left New England Baptist Hospital on Dec. 16 after a pre-dawn condolence call to the family of Edward Moss. News accounts of the time noted that he walked without help, though he wore a back brace and crutches were at the ready if he needed them.

But several biographers say his damaged back gave him pain for the rest of his life. And the experience was apparently food for thought. John was dead. His eldest brother, Joe Kennedy Jr., and his sister Kathleen Kennedy had both been killed in air crashes. He had come close.

Other events in his life would certainly loom larger: the assassination of his brother Robert in 1968, the Chappaquiddick incident in 1969, his failed run for the White House in 1980. But if there was a Kennedy curse, Ted had been spared it that time.

"He hadn't, as a junior senator, really done anything," said Clymer. "When he came back, he did a lot."

Clymer found a quote Ted Kennedy gave to Good Housekeeping magazine in 1965 about his slow recovery from the plane crash:

"I never thought the time was lost," he said. "I tried to put my hours to good use. I had a lot of time to think about what was important and what was not and about what I wanted to do with my life. I think I gained something from those six months that will be valuable the rest of my life."

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