November 30, 2004

Death Hits Hard

LITCHFIELD -- Edward "Teddy" Ebersol and his brothers were raised amid fame and power, but it didn't show.

Teddy played sports locally and was an altar boy at church. His father, NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol, delighted in piling Teddy and his brothers, Charles and Willie, on his tractor for Litchfield's annual Memorial Day parade.

And so it was that news of 14-year-old Teddy's presumed death in a fiery plane crash struck deeply in the community, where his parents - Ebersol and actress Susan Saint James - are well-known and well-liked. Teddy, their youngest, was remembered Monday as a sweet, gregarious kid who liked to play with dogs and who loved baseball.

"The whole town is upset," said Charles Kafferman, a co-owner of West Street Grill, a popular Litchfield restaurant that the family frequented. "It's a small community. They touched a lot of lives here."

Kafferman paused and corrected himself: "They touch a lot of lives here."

The crash happened Sunday morning in Colorado as a chartered jet carrying Dick, Charles and Teddy Ebersol slid off the runway of the Montrose Regional Airport near the Telluride ski resort. The pilot and a flight attendant on the 18-seat jet were killed. The co-pilot was reported to be in critical condition Monday night.

The plane, which witnesses said never got off the ground, skidded sideways into a nearby road, where the cockpit split from the fuselage. Charles Ebersol, 21, pulled his 57-year-old father from the blazing wreckage. Late Monday, searchers found what they suspected to be Teddy's body under the wreckage of the airplane.

Doug Percival, a driver at a towing service who was one of the first to arrive at the scene, said Charles Ebersol was screaming for help and saying his brother was still on the plane

"Can you please help get him out?" Ebersol pleaded, according to Percival.

Dick Ebersol remained hospitalized Monday in Grand Junction, Colo., recovering from broken ribs, a broken sternum and fluid in his lungs, an NBC official said on condition of anonymity. Charles Ebersol suffered a broken hand and sore back and is also hospitalized there.

In Litchfield Monday, at the post office, restaurants and quaint shops along the well-known green, people were saddened by the family's loss.

The Ebersols have deep ties in the region. Dick Ebersol grew up in Torrington and Litchfield. His late father, Charles Ebersol, worked as an attorney and municipal court judge in Torrington for decades. Peter Ebersol, Dick's brother, works in the Torrington law firm of McCormick and Ebersol.

Brian McCormick, a firm partner, said Dick Ebersol and Saint James tried to live as normal a life as possible, enrolling their sons in local sports programs and taking them to community events such as an annual pasta dinner.

"If they were in town, you'd always saw them there," McCormick said. "They just seemed like very ordinary people in town."

Dick Ebersol and Saint James also have given generously of both their time and money to local nonprofit organizations, including the Northwest YMCA and Warner Theatre in Torrington.

"They're a great family in town," said Ted Murphy, owner of E.J. Murphy Real Estate in Litchfield. "They've always supported all the charities here."

Dick Ebersol became NBC's director of late-night programming in 1974 and replaced Lorne Michaels in the early 1980s as executive producer of "Saturday Night Live." He became president of NBC Sports in 1989 and recently signed a contract that will keep him at the network through 2012.

Ebersol is best known for his love of the Olympics. A protege of Olympics-coverage pioneer Roone Arledge, he worked as an ABC researcher at the 1968 Grenoble Winter Games and carried on Arledge's philosophy of presenting the Olympics through storytelling, rather than emphasizing results.

But although he is one of the few media executives whose name is instantly recognizable, friends said Ebersol wanted his boys to grow up as members of their community.

"They're community people," said Litchfield resident and Superior Court Judge Charles Gill, who knows Saint James from work she's done with children's rights programs that he backed. Gill recalled the former star of the popular TV comedy "Kate and Allie" was nine months pregnant with Teddy when she narrated a public television program.

"They adore their children, and their children are nice people," Gill said of Ebersol and Saint James. The Ebersol boys, he said, "seem to have their mom and dad's flair for life - and their courage."

"They weren't the children of celebrities - they were children of wonderful parents who happened to be celebrities," said James O'Shea, another co-owner of the West Street Grill.

Teddy was proper and exceedingly polite, but not overly formal, Kafferman said. He was cheerful, and often charming. Like his parents, he'd go out of his way to say hi when he was in town, O'Shea and Kafferman said.

"He'd come up, shake our hand, look you in the eye and call you mister or sir," O'Shea said.

"I used to kid that he would one day run for president," Kafferman said.

Teddy also was recalled fondly at The Gunnery, the private school he attended in nearby Washington. A junior who declined to give her name recalled that Teddy, who was a freshman, was gregarious and loved to play with dogs on campus.

"He was always walking around saying hi to everyone," the girl said.

Fifteen-year-old Richard Huang, who lived in a dorm near Teddy's, got to know him briefly this fall on the cross-country team.

Huang remembered how Teddy would ask his fellow students to play baseball with him with a tennis ball in the gym. And how he would let others hold his beloved baseball glove, but forbade the boys from sliding their hands inside it.

"That glove is so important to him," Huang said.

It wasn't until Monday night that searchers using heavy equipment found a body matching Teddy's description at the snow-covered crash site.

The Ebersols had traveled to Colorado from a family gathering in Los Angeles, where the University of Notre Dame played a football game Saturday night against the University of Southern California. Willie Ebersol, 18, is a freshman at USC, and Charles Ebersol is a senior at Notre Dame.

The family had stopped to drop off Saint James in Colorado, where they have a home. A heavy snowstorm had eased up before the plane prepared to take off for South Bend, Ind., where Notre Dame is located.

Investigators have not said what role the weather may have played in the accident.

"It's going to be awhile because unfortunately a lot of the wreckage is still covered with snow," said Arnold Scott, the lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Steve McLaughlin of MTJ Air Services, which de-ices private planes at the airport 185 miles southwest of Denver, said the company did not de-ice Ebersol's plane before it took off. Airport manager Scott Brownlee said de-icing would have been the pilot's decision; he said at least one commercial jet had de-iced before taking off Sunday.

The coroner's office identified the pilot as Luis Alberto Polanco Espaillat, 50, of the Dominican Republic, and the flight attendant as Warren T. Richardson III, 36, of Coral Gables, Fla.

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