Bad Luck Saves 3 Men Booked on Flight : Left Behind by Ill-Fated Plane

Times Staff Writers

"It's weird. It's really weird being here. It feels great to be alive. I can't say I'm jumping up and down for joy because I think of all those families and what they're going through," said Robert McKellar, 37, of Newport Beach, as the lights of Orange County came up beneath Northwest Airlines Flight 255 from Detroit on Monday night.

But for a simple broken radiator hose, he and his brother David, 27, of Dana Point, would have been on Sunday's Flight 255, which plunged to the ground in a fiery crash moments after takeoff, killing at least 154, including two people on the ground. Only one passenger, a 4-year-old girl, survived.

Sitting alongside his brother in first-class seats provided free by the airline, David McKellar was asked if it was difficult to get back on a plane, 24 hours after the crash of an airliner whose wreckage the brothers could see as they lifted into the air Monday.

"Not really," he said. "You just think it can't happen to the same flight twice."

Missed the Flight

For another Orange County man, it was inattentiveness--not a malfunctioning automobile--that saved him from being aboard the ill-fated flight. William Wilder of San Clemente simply sat at the airport and missed the flight.

The McKellar brothers' life-saving luck began when a temperature light in their parents' 1983 Oldsmobile Cutlass began flashing as they were approaching the airport while driving in from their hometown of Mayville, 100 miles north of Detroit. They had been visiting their parents, Roger and Phyllis McKellar.

"We stopped for half an hour at a gas station to get it fixed," said David McKellar, who was driving his parents' car, accompanied by his parents and his son, Tim, 8, who was to stay behind with his grandparents.

"We had left early, at 5 o'clock in the afternoon. It was a slow day. It just seemed like everything was going slow, and we didn't really care if we missed the plane," said David, who has an automobile window-tinting business.

They quickly became enmeshed in heavy traffic on Highway 94, heading west.

"I thought it was a car accident or something," said Robert McKellar, a design engineer with Rockwell Corp. "There were a lot of police. The roads were blocked, nothing was moving and it took us forever to get to the airport. Along the way, a policeman said something about a plane crash, but we didn't find out it was our flight until we got to the counter."

Describing how he felt after learning that a common automotive mishap had spared him and his brother, Robert McKellar said: "It was strange. It was not like any other feeling you've had in your life. It was just a strange feeling."

The two, both soft-spoken and dressed in blue jeans, apparently were not aware of how widely known their story was until they walked off the plane in Orange County, across the tarmac and into a clutch of television cameras, bright lights and reporters. Friends, who had rented a long white limousine for their arrival, greeted them with wide hugs. It was only then, answering reporters' questions, that tears came to the eyes of David McKellar and his girlfriend, Elizabeth Wilenius, 26, of Dana Point, as she welcomed him at the airport.

"It hasn't really hit me until now," he said.

The other Orange County resident who had a near-brush with tragedy, William Wilder, 48, of San Clemente, stood in front of his home Monday and calmly recalled how he nonchalantly missed getting aboard the doomed plane.

He had bought a ticket for the flight Sunday and had been sitting in the Detroit Metropolitan Airport for "a long time" when he looked up and saw that the plane had already left.

"I was just not paying attention," he said Monday. But he handled his missed flight casually, grabbing a seat on the next flight out, on Continental Airlines.

It was not until he arrived in Orange County at 10:10 p.m. that he realized how fortuitous his inattentiveness was. Passengers on his Continental flight had not been told of the crash. He got his first clue when he arrived at John Wayne Airport and his wife, Rebecca--who did not know which flight he was on--met him with an emotional hug.

'In a Daze'

For an hour before her husband arrived, Rebecca Wilder said, she had been "wandering around the airport in a daze," fearing the worst, while all around her, the growing crowd was abuzz with news of the tragic plane crash.

"When I saw him come off that plane, I could hardly wait to put my arms around him," she said.

William Wilder said he had flown to Ohio the week before to visit relatives and then decided to drive to Detroit to drop in on an old friend. The friend, however, was not home, so he telephoned his wife to tell her he would be flying in from Detroit on Sunday night. He did not tell her which flight.

"I guess I'm a lucky man," he said calmly, apparently unfazed by his near-brush with tragedy.

His wife took the turn of events more seriously. Describing herself as "very religious," she spent the morning at Mass offering thanks for her husband's life.

And Detroit Lions wide receiver Pete Mandley considered himself very lucky that his wife and two children, who had reservations on Flight 255, decided Sunday afternoon to stay in Michigan another day.

"It had to be the work of the Lord, protecting my family like that," said Mandley, who lives in Paradise Valley, Ariz. "I just wanted them to stay here another day. I guess that was the work of the Lord. I feel very fortunate."

Mandley's wife, Teresa, 7-year-old son, Dejhown, and infant daughter Treazure attended the Lions' football practice Monday.

"We're just trying to put this behind us," Teresa Mandley said. "I'm happy to be here today."

"It's hard for me to say it's our good fortune when it's some people's misfortune," Pete Mandley said. "I'm blessed that my family wasn't on it, but on the other hand, there are a lot of other lives that cannot be retrieved."

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