Edward M. Kennedy Escaped Death in 1964

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

ByABC News
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.