"I hadn't had a premonition like that before and I haven't had one like it since . . . and I hope I never do."
"John" is John Morgan, ABC's expert bobsled commentator. He, Flemming and the crew from Wide World of Sports were in Cortina, Italy, for the 1981 four-man bobsled world championships. The sled Flemming referred to was U.S. No. 1, to be driven by John's oldest brother, Jimmy (Nitro) Morgan.
It was an unusually warm day for early February in mountainous Cortina. By the time Jimmy Morgan's team was to push off on the last run of the event, the temperature was close to 60 degrees. The curtains used to shield the track from the sun were raised, but, Flemming recalled, "It still looked more like a trout stream than a bob run." The Cortina course, designed for flat-out speed, was close to unmanageable.
"When a track gets soft," John Morgan explained last week while walking up the Olympic bob run at Lake Placid, "the preceding trips can cause deep grooves to form. You get caught in one of those grooves and things can change on you."
With the poor conditions and top international competition, Jimmy Morgan's sled was not going to finish higher than ninth that day in Cortina, and the run was uneventful until the final turn. That's when the sled, coming off a high left turn, jumped to the right and then tipped onto its side.
"Thank God they did that in the finish and not at the top," John Morgan said into his microphone as ABC taped the run. "I see three heads bobbing . . ."
Then Flemming: "It looks like Jimmy might have been. . ."
"The driver always gets the worst of it in this situation," Morgan said, sounding more disappointed than concerned. "Let's pray we get these people up."
At that point, Flemming remembers, he told John to get down to his brother at the finish line. "From where I was sitting," Flemming said, "I could see down to the finish through some tree branches. I saw Eugenio Monti, former gold medalist for Italy and long-time friend of the Morgan family, running up to where the sled had stopped. I saw him cover his eyes with his hands in horror. I knew then what had happened.
When John left I told our producer, Terry Jastrow, to get a hand-held [camera] down there because I was sure there was a fatality."
"I began walking down to the finish," recalled Morgan, who works full-time in Lake Placid for the Olympic Regional Development Authority. "I didn't think anything of it." The Morgans [seven brothers, four sisters and natives of Saranac Lake, 10 miles from Lake Placid] had been tipping over all their lives. "We're a family of bobsledders, lugers, ski- jumpers," John said. "A bruise here, a busted elbow there, but that's all. In fact, that same day my brother, Terry, and sister, Brigit, were in Sweden competing in the World Luge Championships. Terry had crashed that day, too.
"Walking down the hill, I'm thinking, 'Nice going, Jimmy. Here we've got a good brother act going on TV and you gotta mess up.' Then I got there and I saw the look on Jess Jost's face [Jost, a close friend of Jimmy's, was seated No. 2 in the sled]. Then I saw blood all over the ice, Then I saw Jimmy. I started screaming for a doctor but two were already there. One just looked up at me and shook his head.
A slow-motion replay made it very clear how 32-year-old Jimmy Morgan was killed. As the sled tipped, Morgan and his team were thrown into the right wall. At over 60 mph, the centrifical force slammed Morgan's head into that wall so violently that it broke his neck.
John Morgan wanted me to do something before writing this. He wanted me to take a bob run at Lake Placid's Mount Van Hoevenberg, the only bob course In this hemisphere until Calgary's is completed for the '88 Winter Games.
"Obviously, there's an element of danger," he said, "but it's the champagne of thrills. I want you to realize why people become addicted to this sport."
While bobsleds become more aerodynamically proficient each year, they remain little more than a tapered metal frame sitting atop four elongated ice-skate blades. It's a low-tech rocket ship.
With John's brother, Sean, driving, and Pete Clark, Sean's regular teammate, serving as brake-man (number 4 man), a friend and I climbed in to compose "the ladder" [Nos. 2 and 3 men]. Until the first turn, I kept my eyes open. After the first turn, I made the trip in a full-tuck grimace. The sheer speed was terrifying. With each turn I became more convinced that we'd tip.
But we didn't. When we finished, giddy with excitement, we were ready for more. "What did I tell you?" John Morgan hollered to us as we climbed out. "The champagne of thrills!"
We retired to the bar at the bottom of the mountain, one in which "sliders" congregate. It was there that John told us that the sled we'd ridden was the same one in which Jimmy was killed.
On Monday, John called to say that Sean's team had won the North American Championships in that same sled over the weekend. "Four heats, a mile each, and they won by six one-hundredths of a second," he said. "He won by a fingernail after four miles!"
When told that there's still a Morgan competing in the bobsled, Bill Flemming laughed. "You think I'm surprised by that?" he said. "I'm not surprised at all."