It was hot inside the church. The bride and groom stepped to the altar. This was last weekend, Joe Maiorana’s wedding, and his college pals were serving as ushers. Bill Ryan. Dave Maine. And, of course, Kurt Dobronski, his ex-room mate, his best friend, who had flown in from Phoenix for the occasion.
“It was the first time,” Bill remembers, “that all four of us were together in tuxedos.”
They had laughed about that because back at Central Michigan it was always jeans and sweats and football gear. Tuxedos? Us guys? True, Bill was now a salesman, Dave worked in a credit union, Kurt had the real estate business in Arizona. But together, somehow, they still felt like kids. “Let’s take a picture,” their wives and girlfriends had said back at the house. And in their tuxedos, because they couldn’t resist, the guys grabbed at one another and stuck their tongues out and mugged for the camera.
Friendship. At the reception afterward, they sat together on a patio and had food and drinks and talked about college days. They had been doing it all week. At the bachelor party. At the rehearsal dinner. At the hotel the night before. Reminiscing. “Like old men, right?” says Bill. “I mean, we’re only 28.”
That night they danced. They ate cake. They drank champagne. A guy with a video camera came around and gave Kurt the microphone, and he made a little speech for the groom, his closest friend: “Joe, I hope when you’re 50,” he said, gazing into the lens, “you’ll look back at this tape and remember all the good times we had when we were 20.”
It was a nice thing to do. But then Kurt was always doing things like that. Joe watched the tape Thursday night — four days after a Northwest Airlines jet crashed horribly upon takeoff at Metro Airport — and then he tried to sleep. The next morning, he met Bill and Dave and they drove quietly to the church to serve as pallbearers at Kurt’s funeral.
This is a story about death in an instant, and about friendships that last forever. Kurt Dobronski was not a famous name. But his was a life that touched another life that touched another and another, and in the horribly gray week that followed one of the worst air crashes in U.S. history, those lives were pulled together tighter, like shoelaces, one big tug that they will never forget.
I was watching TV Sunday night when they broke in,” recalls Bill Ryan,
“they said there was a crash at the Detroit airport and then they said the flight was going to Phoenix, and that’s when I got nervous. At the wedding so many people had asked Kurt when he was leaving for home and he said Sunday night.
“I said to my wife, ‘Oh, my god, I think Kurt was on that plane. I know he was going on Northwest.’ For a while they weren’t saying if there were any survivors. We sat there for an hour, not knowing anything. . . . “
This much Bill Ryan felt he knew: It couldn’t be Kurt. Kurt was too, well, too healthy, too much in shape. He was a football player back at CMU — where they had all become friends in the late 1970s and early ’80s — a defensive end who would make all- conference twice. On Friday, two nights before the crash, Kurt and Bill had slept in the same hotel room after a big wedding-eve dinner with the families. “We stayed out late, all of us, talking and drinking, and when I woke up Saturday, the first thing I saw was Kurt doing sit-ups. Fifty sit-ups! At like, eight in the morning!”
This was not the kind of guy who dies. This was Kurt, who was always grinning and never complaining and who was doing so well in Arizona. Everybody loved Kurt. “No way it happened to him, I kept saying. He was so together. We had just spent the best weekend of our lives and then . . . well, there’s just no way.”
“He was too much of a friend to die.”
Dave Maine was watching television Sunday night, too. He heard the announcement that Northwest flight 255, bound for Phoenix and Orange County, Calif., had crashed moments after takeoff, leaving debris and bodies scattered all over. He saw films of the wreckage, of flames licking off I-94.
What do you do in such a moment? Like Bill, Dave immediately focused on the recent mental pictures — the bachelor party, the rehearsal, the wedding
— because these were real images, images of life, familiar and right and comforting. Dead? No way. Dave, Kurt and Joe had played on the football team together. They had celebrated two Mid-American Conference championships. At the wedding they had done their celebrated “Victory Dance,” in which they slide across the floor, jump in the air, scream “HEY!” and slam into somebody.
Dead? No. Couldn’t be. “You only have a few good friends,” Dave says. As if that might make them immortal. These good friends had always kept up. Kurt would return to Michigan for the CMU homecoming games, and not too long ago, Dave had visited Kurt in Phoenix, had slept in his house, and had told him the big news: He was going to get married. “I said, ‘You wanna put on a tux next June?’ And Kurt said, ‘Heck, yeah.’ He was always happy if you were happy.”
So there was a wedding to go to. He couldn’t die. He wouldn’t. Dave thought about the time Kurt tried out for the Dallas Cowboys, and when that didn’t work out, how he tried the Arizona Outlaws of the USFL. “He was writing George Allen all the time, just asking for a look. I told him to quit; he had a nice (real estate) business growing out there. But he wouldn’t quit. He wouldn’t quit anything.”
People like that don’t die. Not him. Not him. Wasn’t that the thought of so many loved ones when the horror of last Sunday night spread across the nation? Not him. Not her. Not mine. What do you do at such a terrible moment? Dave Maine did what was instinctive. He called Kurt’s parents’ house.
“Kurt?” he said, hopefully, when a male voice answered.
“No,” answered Kurt’s brother. “That was Kurt’s plane. There were no survivors. I gotta go. . . . “
Love is only chatter; friends are all that matter.” A poet wrote that once. And is there ever a friendship like the one with your college roommate? What a time! Grown-up bodies without the grown-up responsibilities. Parties and late night talks and beer and late night talks and girls and late night talks.
For five years, Kurt Dobronski and Joe Maiorana shared a room, shared a bunk bed, walked around Joe’s pile of clothes in the middle of the floor.
(“We called it ‘The Pile,’ says Bill. “It was so big we used to sleep on it.”) They had grown up near one another in Detroit. They had heard of one another through the high school athletic grapevine. After two weeks of freshman football practice at Central Michigan, they decided to room together.
So telling Joe of Kurt’s death — which Bill volunteered to do — was going to be the hardest thing. Joe was on his honeymoon. He and his bride had just reached the island of Kauai, in Hawaii. Because of the busy produce business in which Joe works, these two weeks were to be the longest stretch the two of them ever spent together. They had enjoyed one day of island fun when the phone rang at 7 a.m.
It doesn’t seem fair — a guy on his honeymoon.
It isn’t fair.
“When I heard Bill say he had bad news, I thought somebody had broken into my house or something,” says Joe in a soft voice still choked with grief. “Big deal. That wouldn’t have mattered.
“Then he said it was a plane crash. My god. What pops into your head? People die in plane crashes.”
You need only talk to Joe Maiorana to know what he had with Kurt Dobronski was more than average friendship. This was one of those rare meshes, a sharing of a soul, two guys who could live together for five years and never have a fight. Their best memories were snapshots that included both of them: the first game they started together, Joe at offensive guard, Kurt at defensive end, the showers after winning, the trip to California, the trip to Florida, the championship rings they received.
“Have you ever had a friend that you just didn’t have to say anything to? He just knew? That’s how we were. When he got hurt freshman year and couldn’t play, I was there for him. I got hurt the next year and couldn’t play. He was there for me. When we got out of school, I remember that first summer, thinking how weird it was not to be going back in September to our room. We had been together so much.”
So what do you do when a piece of your soul is suddenly yanked away? Joe hung up the phone, went for a short walk, then began making plans to return as quickly as possible. He and his wife had these honeymoon reservations for eight months. Thousands of dollars would be lost. It never entered his mind.
“I was just doing what a decent human being does. When your best friend dies, you go back, no matter what. There was never a question. He came to my wedding. . . . “
He pauses; the words strained. “I just feel like, I wish I hadn’t invited him. . . . “
On the plane trip back from Hawaii, Joe and his wife had to stop in Honolulu, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and Detroit — all on Northwest Airlines, which had offered to pay for the fare, even though a last-minute mistake on the airline’s part caused the couple to miss their first flight.
The journey home took nearly 24 hours. The takeoffs were the hardest part. “I kept looking out the window as we lifted off,” says Joe. “I tried to visualize what Kurt saw. My god. It must have been terrible. He’s a smart guy. He had to realize what was going on. He had to face the terror of knowing he was going to die. That’s what bothers me the most. That’s what I can’t accept. It just isn’t fair. . . . “
Is isn’t fair. Kurt Dobronski was a 6-foot-2, curly haired, always grinning young man who, by all accounts, never spent a day pretending he was something he was not. Quiet. Confident. Loving. You can ask people from work, school, the neighborhood. They come up with the same words. During the last week of his life, he visited CMU. He was crazy about his old school. He saw his old coach, Herb Deromedi, and he even worked out with the freshman football players. “He told me he had a lot of equipment and football souvenirs at home but what he really missed was just getting into the simple gray sweats and working out,” says Deromedi, “so I gave him a pair.”
Before he left, Kurt made sure to take a young player to lunch, a kid who had gone to Edsel Ford, Kurt’s old high school, and was now playing for Central. Nobody asked him to do it. He did it anyway. “He loved that place,” says Bill. “He never forgot it.”
A week later, in the charred wreckage of flight 255, workers would somehow find Kurt’s CMU championship ring and send it back to the family.
Where is the rhyme and reason for this heartbreak? Where is the sensible chord? “I know people say this is part of God’s plan,” says Deromedi, who recruited Kurt out of high school, “but I don’t believe that. God did not plan this. Not this kind of tragedy.”
You need only to have seen films of the crash site, of the makeshift morgue that was set up in an airplane hangar, to realize where those words come from.
Isn’t it crazy? Without a plane, Kurt Dobronski never would have made it in for the wedding. He never would have been there for the bachelor party, for the time with his family, his brothers, his sister, and his fiance, Cheryl Kolakowski, whom he’d dated since their freshman year.
He would have missed those homecoming weekends, and the reunions at the bar. Isn’t it crazy? Without a plane.
These are the times we live in. “Days of miracle and wonder,” goes a popular song. Long distance. Computers. Cellular phones.
The last time Kurt, Bill, Dave and Joe were alone together was the limousine ride to the wedding. It may be their fondest memory. They were so happy, so giddy, so mischievous. And they were so late. Joe was nervous. He was tapping his hand without realizing it on Bill’s shoulders.
“You can still back out,” Kurt teased.
“Yeah,” said Dave, “we can take this limo right now and go to the airport.”
“We’ll go to Vegas.”