From the Editor

Drescher: Remembering a great team

Executive EditorDecember 3, 2011 

You try to get it out of your head, but you cannot.

You are one of four passengers on a helicopter returning to the Triangle from a Friday night high school football game in Wilmington.

You are Tony Debo, 32, WTVD sports reporter and anchor, seated next to pilot Jim Lane, 48. Behind you are two other WTVD colleagues: Rick Sherrill, 33, engineering technician, and Bart Smith, 28, photographer.

Almost home. But over southern Wake County, you know something is wrong. The chopper starts to drop, and Jim can't get it righted. In the silence, you think you have seconds to live.

You black out. When you awaken, you've crashed through the windshield, still strapped to your seat.

You are wet with fuel and bloody. Your ankle is broken. You are in a field.

You know the others are dead.

That night never leaves you. It was 20 years ago - just after midnight on Dec. 7, 1991.

Ten years later, you write a letter to The News & Observer, trying to keep the spirit of Jim, Rick and Bart alive. It is published on Dec. 7, 2001. On that day, you visit the crash site with three roses.

You have never returned.

After two decades at WTVD, you leave in 2007. The days are mostly empty. It doesn't seem to get any easier, you say in an interview this week. You still think about it every day.

You see some great doctors, but the nightmares continue. You cannot sleep. You wonder why you alone survived.

At the time of the crash, each of you on the helicopter was engaged. You married your fiancée and now have two teenage sons. The others never married the women they loved, never started a new family.

Not long ago, friends and family of the four of you - Tony, Jim, Rick and Bart - wanted to get together.

You weren't sure if you would go.

There's a Facebook page of remembrances. You've never read it. You don't want to. You lived it. You still do. Every day.

But you went to that gathering in downtown Raleigh a few weeks ago.

The other three fiancées were there. You hadn't seen them in years. To see how much they cared for you was amazing.

You opened up like never before. It was so good to talk about it, to let it out. You had tears in your eyes.

What a warm, comforting night. Once you were bound to these people by grief. Now you are bound to them by love.

So this Wednesday, Dec. 7, you will visit the site for the first time in 10 years. And you will remember the good times when you were young.

The night of Dec. 6, 1991, had been one of the good times.

After the game, the stories filed, the four - Tony, Bart, Rick and Jim - were euphoric. It had been a heck of a game; Jim and Bart, who'd watched a lot of games, said it was the best high school football game they'd ever seen.

Another season on the road covering high school football was over; the championship games the next week would be in Chapel Hill, close to home.

Before you stepped into the helicopter, you all exchanged high fives. Your work was done and done well.

Here's to tonight. Here's to another great season. Here's to us.

Four colleagues - four friends - bound by teamwork, respect and appreciation for one another.

That's what you try to remember.

Drescher: 919-829-4515 or On Twitter @john_drescher

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