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Dave Olson, Published December 29 2008

Detroit Lakes man helps others escape burning jet

Rich Kostynick Jr. says his dad isn’t one to blow his own horn too loudly.

So others are doing it for him.

By all accounts, the elder Kostynick, who is from Detroit Lakes, Minn., ignored potential danger to help fellow passengers evacuate Continental Flight 1404 after it crashed and burned trying to take off from the Denver airport Dec. 20.

Susan Kostynick was half asleep when she and her husband, Rich Kostynick Sr., settled in on the plane for the last leg of their journey to visit their son, Timothy, in Houston, Texas, for Christmas.

She said the takeoff seemed rough from the start.

“I thought, ‘Gee, this runway must be packed with ice,’ ” said Susan Kostynick, recalling how things then got very bad as she felt the plane shoot up and come down very hard a couple of times before it skidded off the runway into a ravine.

Susan Kostynick lost her glasses in the tumult, but she could see flames licking at the wing just outside her window.

As she looked for a way out, she said her husband put his hands on her hips and directed her to an exit door on the side of the plane opposite the fire.

She said he told her that something in his head told him to get the women and children out.

“He just thought that was his mission,” said Susan Kostynick, recalling that she went out the door and slid down the wing of the plane, soaking her pants with jet fuel as she went.

Then, she and other passengers ran up a nearby hill to what turned out to be a fire station.

She said her husband stayed behind to aid several people in getting out of the plane, including a mother who had two young daughters with her, one of them a third-grader who clung to her mother’s leg and wouldn’t budge.

“My husband swooped up the girl, got the mother and the older daughter down the chute and got the third-grader and put her down the chute,” said Susan Kostynick.

She said he turned and looked around and there was no one left on the plane except the crew.

It was at that point, she said, that her husband became aware of his own peril.

“He saw more flames and thought, ‘Oh, I gotta get the heck outta here,’ ” said Susan Kostynick, who along with her husband was still at the home of their son, Timothy, in Houston on Sunday.

Rich Kostynick downplayed his actions that day, heaping praise on the quick and generous response of the American Red Cross as well as the airline and the emergency workers who descended on the scene.

He said it was only natural for him to make sure passengers were getting off the plane, adding that even when people were clear of the wreckage the focus remained on keeping everyone safe.

“You’re in such a state of mind at the time,” said Kostynick, who plans to return to Minnesota with his wife on Tuesday.

Rich Kostynick Jr. said when he heard about what his father did, it was completely in keeping with what he knows about his dad.

“I’ll be honest with you, he’s a great guy and I’m very proud of him.

“It doesn’t surprise me he would help others before he helped himself,” said the younger Kostynick.

He said his father, a retired educator, taught for 35 years, many of them as a fifth-grade teacher in Frazee, Minn.

Education is something of a family trait.

Susan Kostynick teaches second-grade at the Heart of the Lakes School in Perham, Minn., where her daughter-in-law, Ann Kostynick, teaches first-grade in a classroom just two doors down.

Ann Kostynick’s husband, John, teaches high school in Perham, Minn., while his brother, Timothy, teaches fifth-grade in Houston.

Rich Kostynick Jr. teaches fifth-grade in Stillwater, Minn., where his wife also teaches.

At the time the plane disaster was unfolding, Susan Kostynick said the scene looked just like it would in a movie, except instead of screaming and panicking the passengers and crew remained calm and quiet, vacating the plane safely in about 60 seconds, according to what a pilot told her.

The crew also told her it was amazing to them that the plane, with a belly full of fuel, didn’t explode.

“We feel really blessed to still be here,” she said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Olson at (701) 241-5555