If not for former Sen. Birch Bayh of Indiana, Sen. Edward Kennedy very well may have died on the night of June 19, 1964.
Both nearly died in a plane crash the night the Senate passed the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Delayed by the vote, the two men were flying through a thunderstorm to get to the Massachusetts state Democratic convention.
“We were bounced around so much we couldn’t see the moon in any steady way,” said Bayh, who served in the Senate from 1963 to 1981 and is now a partner in the D.C. law firm Venable LLP. “Then I looked out and saw this black line coming. I thought it was another storm, but it was the tops of trees.”
Pilot Ed Zimy pulled out of the trees but quickly lost control again, crashing into an apple orchard just short of the Springfield airport. Bayh said he thought the plane had been hit by lightning, and was convinced he was dead. When he woke up, Bayh said, his wife Marvella was screaming, the pilot and Kennedy aide Ed Moss were both mortally wounded and Kennedy was barely responsive.
Bayh said he resisted initial thoughts of leaving Kennedy in the wreckage, but was later amazed at how he carried the hefty senator.
“We’ve all heard adrenaline stories about how a mother can lift a car off a trapped infant. Well, Kennedy was no small guy, and I was able to lug him out of there like a sack of corn under my arm,” Bayh said.
Kennedy spent five months in the hospital, re-emerging barely in time to win reelection in November 1964.
“A lot of the older senators were wondering if they were going to have to kiss his ring. I mean, he could have been a pariah,” Bayh said. “But he had no airs, and just did a remarkable job of ingratiating himself not only to his new colleagues but the older members.
“He was a Kennedy, and you could say he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but he was determined to spend his life helping the little people. That tells you what he was made of.”