HAVANA -- The DC-10 somersaulted in a corn field in Sioux City, Iowa, and D.D. Alexander somehow walked away from the twisted metal and the stinging smoke and the broken, burning bodies.
She was a privileged youngster who had grown up showing horses and attending allthe right schools, and in one 15-second flash of fire and fury on July 19, 1989, her life changed because it was spared. United Airlines Flight 232, bound from Denver to Chicago, went down with a blown engine, a wrecked hydraulic system and 185 terrified passengers. One hundred eleven died, but luck had ridden with Alexander.
"It makes you realize that there are a lot of things important in life, and there is a lot that really doesn't matter," she said. "It sets your priorities. After something like that, well, I came out of it more self-assured."
Alexander now rides confidently on a big, gorgeous 15-year-old chestnut named Bon Retour, which means Good Return. She is in the equestrian competition in show jumping at the Pan American Games, trying to clear all the barriers at the Lenin Park Center, an unfinished stadium that overlooks an amusement park.
"It is kind of funny to be in Cuba, to be in a place named after Lenin," she said. "The socialist world is crumbling, and Cuba is the last stand for communism. But at least I'm here."
Alexander is 28 years old and lives on a horse farm in Unionville, Pa. She pulls her bright strawberry blond hair up into a bun, yanks up her black boots and goes to work guiding Bon Retour. For her, the finest pleasure in life is found in the simple symmetry of a human's touch blending with an animal's grace.
The plane crash that changed her life is now just a bad memory, one that she only relives when asked. She was returning from a competition in Hawaii with her trainer, Michael Matz. They missed their first flight, got into Denver late, and were put on a later connection, United 232. Alexander was in Row 9 and Matz in Row 15, unknowing winners of a lottery in which death was dictated by seat assignments.
"I've flown a lot, and I knew the plane wasn't right," Alexander said. "I was frightened. I was terrified. There was an explosion, and the pilot came on and told us something was wrong. A man from Boeing was sitting next to me, and he said the hydraulics were working. But he knew what was happening. When they told us to practice the crash-landing position, then I was really scared. I was hoping we'd have one of those landings where we would go down the chutes."
This landing was deadly.
"I was just hoping the plane wouldn't disintegrate," she said.
Seconds, she said, felt like minutes. When the plane stopped, she was upside down, bruised and dazed, yet strapped into her seat.
She scampered through the wreckage and looked for Matz. Lost in a maze of metal and corn, Alexander didn't know that Matz was alive, that he was performing heroically under stress, shuttling three kids from the jet, returning to the broken fuselage to carry away an injured nun, returning again to lift the door of an overhead bin while another man lifted out a screaming 1-year-old.
"I kept looking for D.D.," Matz said. "How could I not find this girl with the bright hair and the yellow dress? But she was alive."
Two days later, Alexander performed in the show of her life by winning the junior-amateur competition at the Hampton Classic. Her career began to take shape. She won a grand prix in February at Palm Beach, Fla., and had a second- and a third-place finish in the Challenge Series, important tests for a young competitor. She passed through four Pan Am qualifiers with only 4.75 faults.
"I'm a better rider now," she said. "A lot of it has to do with the fact I have more experience. But with that accident, I've gained confidence. It made me grow up."
Alexander and Matz refuse to let the accident overshadow their lives. They still fly, although they decline rides aboard DC-10s. They didn't attend a one-year anniversary of remembrance at the crash site, but they met this summer in Lake Placid, N.Y., with the three children Matz helped save.
"We sort of feel like we want to put this behind us," Alexander said. "We don't want our lives to revolve around it. I don't want this as my claim to fame."
She treated a life-and-death moment as if it were nothing more than falling off a horse. She walked away, dusted herself off and got back on again.