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Ebersols break silence to Oprah

Justin Tardiff | Friday, February 3, 2006

The family of Notre Dame graduate Charlie Ebersol appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” Thursday to discuss the tragic 2004 plane crash that took the life of its youngest son, Teddy.

It marked the first time the Ebersols have spoken to the media together about the crash and their mourning process.

Charlie Ebersol said this is “the first and only time” that the family will publicly speak about its tragedy.

Along with him, Charlie Ebersol’s father, NBC Sports Chairman Dick Ebersol, his mother, actress Susan Saint James, and his younger brother Willie Ebersol emotionally recalled the life, death and memory of the youngest family member, Teddy Ebersol.

Winfrey introduced the famous family through a review of their many successes, which concluded when she said, “in one moment their life would change forever.”

This moment occurred on Nov. 28, 2004 when their private plane crashed on takeoff at Montrose Regional Airport in Colorado, killing Teddy. Dick and Charlie Ebersol were also aboard.

Dick Ebersol recalled the rocky takeoff that day, as Teddy turned to him and said, “I’m scared.”

He said it was only moments later that the plane crashed and skidded off the runway, eventually stopping on the edge of a 60-foot cliff.

Charlie Ebersol told Winfrey he remembers every moment of the crash.

“It is one of those moments; they say it lasts 15 seconds, but it seems like it lasts for hours,” he said.

Charlie told Winfrey at time of the crash he was the only person on board without a seatbelt, but was also the only person who remained conscious after the crash.

Dick Ebersol said in the moments following the crash when Charlie found himself in a burning plane, he identified his father after seeing his white head of hair in the wreckage.

“I was laying in the aisleway and the ceiling had collapsed on me, and I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God, I cannot get through this without my dad,'” Charlie Ebersol said to Winfrey.

Charlie Ebersol, who broke his back in two places and hand in six places, ruptured his eye and received a third degree burn to his left arm in the crash, described the event as “very violent.” He then told Winfrey of his efforts to reenter the wreckage to rescue Teddy, and being unable to find him.

Teddy’s body was not recovered until the next day, when rescuers lifted the plane to find that he had been ejected and stuck underneath the wreckage.

Saint James said she was relieved her youngest son’s body was intact.

“That was a cool thing because Charlie knew he would have never ever found him [under the wreckage],” she said to Winfrey.

During the show, which was taped Jan. 11 at Harpo Studios in Chicago, the family was most notably moved when reflecting on its emotionally difficult grieving process.

“Susan gave everyone in our family this great release,” Dick Ebersol said. “She let us know it is OK to cry, and that we weren’t going to be angry … or mad [about Teddy’s death].”

Saint James said while she was raised a Catholic and has faith, she was forced to redefine her beliefs after her son’s death in order to come to terms with the accident.

“Having resentment is like taking poison and hoping the other person dies,” Saint James said to Winfrey. “That is the motto I live by.”

“It’s been one year and two months [since the accident], and we are all here and smiling,” Willie Ebersol said to Winfrey.

The Ebersols agreed the first part of recovering from the tragedy is acceptance of the fact that Teddy is gone, and continuing to live life to the fullest. They said they were particularly touched after they discovered Teddy’s autobiography, in which he wrote, “The finish line is just the beginning of a whole new race”- a motto the family lives by each day.

“Every parent has that flash … [that] this is so horrible. How do you get through it?” Saint James said. “You get up the next day, you brush your teeth, comb your hair … Life is so powerful you just keep on living.”

“One thing that is so amazing about your family is that you all love deeply,” Winfrey said to the Ebersols. “You have thick love and aren’t afraid to show it.”

Charlie Ebersol will also be featured in an upcoming episode of “The Oprah Winfrey Show” – set to air sometime later this month – about an award-winning movie he co-produced during his junior year at Notre Dame.

The documentary film, entitled “Ithuteng [never stop learning],” is about the lives of three students who attend an at-risk school in Soweto, South Africa. Winfrey donated $1.14 to the school after viewing the film earlier this year.

Ebersol said he was inspired to make this film to share the life lessons he learned from the children at the school who said that pain and grief should not be hidden, and people should share their feelings with others.

“It is so common in America, especially for men, to not experience their grief and I think one of the things we wanted to show was, ‘Look, horrible things happen in your life, but you have to experience [them],'” he said.

Ebersol said he was amazed at how comfortable Winfrey made him and his family feel while on the set.

The Ebersols told Winfrey they will never completely get over the death of Teddy, but his death has allowed them to look at life in a new way.

Charlie Ebersol said since the family taped the show they received many letters from audience members who had experienced a similar tragedy, and were able to view their grief in a new way after hearing the Ebersols’ philosophies on unexpected death.

“I don’t think we have any secret,” Charlie Ebersol said. “Because of whatever circumstances that we are in, we aren’t any more qualified [than anyone else] to offer advice to other people … it’s like paying it forward.”

Mary Kate Malone contributed to this report.