Kan Survives Another Brush With Death

From The Nazis To The Plane Bombing Attempt

December 29, 2009|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,scott.calvert@baltsun.com

First he heard a pop, as if someone had pricked a balloon. In the next instant came shouts for people to keep their heads down, a reddish-orange flash and the ominous sight of smoke in the cabin.

With some fellow passengers now screaming and crying, Robert Kan of Baltimore, ensconced in seat 13J, knew something had gone seriously wrong on his Christmas Day flight from Amsterdam to Detroit.

But it wasn't until Kan got home that he learned exactly what had happened aboard the plane. A passenger six rows back had tried to bring down the Airbus A330 by detonating an explosive device hidden on his body, according to law enforcement authorities.

Since then, Kan has been talking about his ordeal with friends and family - and dipping liberally into the Dutch gin he packed in his suitcase. More and more, he's pondering what a close call he had.

"That didn't sink in until Saturday or Sunday," he said Monday from his Woodberry home. "It is still sinking in. I am 75 and feel I am starting a new life."

The Dutch-born Kan knows about second chances.

He wasn't quite 5 when World War II broke out, and his Jewish family sent him to a series of hiding spots around the Netherlands. The war destroyed the Kan family. His father, Jacques, perished at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and his mother, Marcelle, died of cancer, but he escaped detection by the Nazis.

A year after the war ended, Kan jumped off a streetcar to avoid a conductor while on his way to school in Amsterdam. He lost his right leg when the wheels rolled over him. Again, though, he felt a certain fortune merely to have survived.

Over the past six decades, Kan has enjoyed what he calls a good life: He moved to the United States, became an orthopedic surgeon, started a family and settled in Baltimore, retiring from medicine in 2001.

His successes allowed him to make overseas travel a regular part of his life. Every year, he says, he takes two or three trips to Europe or more distant places; on Christmas he was returning from a two-week visit to see his ailing sister, Winnifred, who like their father was sent to Bergen-Belsen but who made it out.

Until recently Kan had had only relatively minor trip-related headaches. Once he was on a flight diverted to Ireland for 24 hours because of broken toilets. Another time, chaos at Heathrow Airport in London forced him to take a train to Belgium before continuing on to Bangkok.

"Nothing dangerous to my person," he said. "This is the first time I came close to being killed."

The Northwest Airlines flight to Detroit had been pleasantly uneventful all the way across the Atlantic, he recalls. The popping interrupted the quiet hum when the jet was 20 minutes from the Detroit airport. Suddenly all was bedlam, with the pop, flash, smoke and shouts. Someone yelled for water to douse the flames.

"I knew immediately that somebody was trying to do something awful," Kan said. "I didn't know what it was. I thought maybe they had a firecracker or something."

Kan could not see much from his seat. News accounts say passengers helped thwart the attack by pouncing on the man. In seconds, Kan saw two men hustle up the aisle on the opposite side of the plane. One held the other - the suspected terrorist - in a headlock, so Kan did not get a good look at him.

After landing about noon, Kan hurriedly called his partner in Baltimore to explain the situation, just before passengers were told not to use their phones. Everyone had to stay seated for an hour, he said.

Then passengers were shuttled into the airport where they remained under the gaze of police officers and federal agents. A bomb-sniffing dog checked them and their bags. An FBI agent asked Kan questions and showed him a picture of a man, though he does not think it was of the suspect, a Nigerian national named Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab.

Kan asked questions of his own, but tight-lipped police officers only hinted that it was serious.

Finally, about 5 p.m., an agent let Kan leave. He ducked outside for a quick cigarette, then went back through security for his flight to Baltimore. By coincidence he had a long scheduled layover and so had no trouble catching his 5:50 flight.

Ever since, Kan's mind has been racing with thoughts that did not cross his mind as the episode unfolded.

"On the plane when the thing was happening," he said, "it never occurred to me I was several thousand feet in the air, and if this thing had gone off I would have been blown up with everybody else."

His voice broke as he spoke. It also captured his anger at Abdulmutallab's ability to travel on the flight even after the man's father alerted U.S. authorities to his son's rising interest in radical Islamic views.

Despite the traumatic experience, Kan says he will keep flying. In March he plans to go "somewhere warm" in South America with his son, a doctor in Louisville, Ky.

"I'll be ready then," Kan said. "I am a strong person. I think that by the end of the week I'll be OK. By that time the bottle of Dutch gin will probably be empty."

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