The most arresting truth of fate--or chance, as some wish to call it--is how it intrudes in the lives of everyday people. It affects the weak and strong, the good and bad, the young and old. For some it pops up again and again, often in the strangest ways. Often in the strangest places.
Fate can mean romance. Joan Smith was a barroom singer in St. Paul, Minn., when Ray Kroc walked in. He liked her voice, the way her fingers tickled the ivories. Joan Smith, now Joan Kroc, is one of the world’s wealthiest philanthropists as well as the president of the San Diego Padres.
Fate can mean tragedy--for some it continues to mean that. E. Jack Ridout escaped death by fate three times--he avoided Vietnam, was injured in the world’s worst aviation disaster, and missed a seat on PSA Flight 182, which crashed in San Diego.
Fate can mean taxing survival to the fullest. Auschwitz survivor Helen Waterford came before Mengele three times and three times was spared.
Fate can mean fame, unwanted or otherwise. Photographer Hans Wendt, who almost won the Pulitzer Prize for a picture of the crash of Flight 182, is uncertain of the side effects of fame-at least that imposed by fate.
Fate can mean philosophical, theological (or semantic) confusion. Pastor Paul Pulliam of San Diego’s First Presbyterian Church has puzzled over the meaning of fate, and the role God plays in it.
He isn’t sure of the answers.
E. Jack Ridout is a study in fate, in the guiding hand of good luck. As the Vietnam War loomed large, Ridout got ready for induction into the Army. He got in his car and drove north. A driver ran a red light. Ridout was hit and injured. He was rendered “4-F"--unable to serve.
Years later he would engineer the rise of a plastics firm, taking it from a piddling venture to a multimillion-dollar enterprise. A girlfriend suggested a much-needed holiday--a cruise to the Greek Isles. Ridout hadn’t vacationed in years.
Reservations were made, and weeks later he and his girlfriend found themselves strapped in the first-class cabin of a chartered flight to Spain. From there they would sail to Athens.
A delay on the ground left them stranded in Los Angeles. A stopover in New York was delayed when an argument ensued between tour officials and caterers over food prices. En route to Las Palmas, Spain, the plane was buffeted by head winds, causing further delay. Then came the announcement that terrorists had just bombed the Las Palmas airport. The plane would have to be diverted to Santa Cruz de Tenerife and a small airstrip in the Canary Islands.
Timing, Ridout said, is everything.
Arriving at Tenerife--to a three-hour delay--the worst was at hand. Planes were circling the runway like vultures. The longer the wait, the worse the fog rolling in off the coast. The airstrip control “tower” was a truck at the end of the runway. The man inside, Ridout said, “couldn’t see a thing.”
Four or five planes took off. The pilot of a Dutch KLM 747 attempted to take off without permission. The pilot of a Pan Am 747--the plane Ridout was on--entered the runway without permission. Unbeknown to the pilots, they were headed on a fatal course--a head-on crash in heavy fog.
“As fate would have it,” Ridout said, “halfway down the runway, our pilot saw the lights from the KLM. He tried to turn off. But the pilot of the KLM, which was full of fuel, couldn’t get the sucker off the ground. He was barreling down at 200 knots. He was so loaded--he knew it was gonna happen--that less than 15 feet off the ground, he actually got the landing gear up.
“Right before he hit us, he pulled back so hard on the stick that the tail cut a hole in the concrete. It was 12 feet thick, but there he was, dragging along the ground for the length of a football field, cracking cement all the way down. He got the plane up but couldn’t clear the hump in the 747. He almost got over it. If it had been a conventional airplane, maybe he would have. But it wasn’t.”
The observation deck of the Pan Am was sawed off, killing its passengers instantly. All on the KLM flight were killed. Only 71 of Pan Am’s survived, making it the worst crash in aviation history. Five hundred eighty-one people lost their lives.
Ridout thinks more on his flight could have survived, if not for shock. His most arresting flashback is seeing hundreds of passengers strapped to their seats, staring ahead, unharmed--for five minutes before flames swallowed the cabin. He believes all could have made it.
Why did he survive?
“I’ve been called a survivor for years,” he said with a shrug. He explained that his first instinct was to move, free others, then get “the hell out.” He was later commended for saving 12 lives. They included his girlfriend, who suffered only a run in her stockings. Ridout was thrown 65 feet from the plane, suffered burns over most of his body and has a back that will never be the same. He remembers the plane “roaring full blast,” thinking, “We’re throwing these people off, and they’re gonna be sucked up by the engines.” He has a lasting memory of a 747. “They look like a fortress, but, boy, if you’ve ever seen ‘em burn, they’re nothin’ but a paper airplane.”
Never a religious man, he now believes in predestination. He calls Tenerife “My Vietnam.”
A year and a half later his path crossed with fate’s once more. On a business trip to Los Angeles, he was staying with a friend. He stayed Friday and Saturday night but told his friend, whose air conditioner was broken in the midst of a heat wave, that he couldn’t take it anymore. He would leave Sunday evening--not Monday morning--and go home where the air conditioning worked. By changing his plans he gave up a seat on Flight 182, which crashed in North Park, killing 144 who weren’t as lucky.
“For a long time,” he said, “that one bothered me more than Tenerife. ‘Cause there’s no way I would have survived that one.”
Ridout figures that like a cat he has maybe four lives left. After the crash, after divorce, he said he’s emerged from the dark side of life. Now 42, he has some advice:
“You can’t avoid fate,” he said. “But for God’s sake, don’t tempt it. You wanna drive 65 on the freeway? Great. But don’t tempt fate. You do, you’re askin’ for it.”