Sudden Death

The recovery of Challenger’s debris and its seven astronauts’ remains ended sixteen months of high-stress and flat-out competition. It ended with me satisfied I had done my best. I had broken the cause of the Challenger accident, as well as filing some seventy Challenger recovery stories on Tom Brokaw’s Nightly News and the Today Show. My body felt like it had aged sixteen years instead of sixteen months and despite having to cover out-of-town stories while NASA redesigned the Space Shuttle’s boosters, I still needed to train for the Association of Schools of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Journalist in Space Project. For eleven years, jogging had been my answer to keeping in shape, and the hard sands of Cocoa Beach offered the perfect place to run.

May 28, 1987, was a typical late spring day. The temperature was in the mid-80s, and I had wrapped myself in the comforts of being home. Since Challenger’s loss, I had spent my working hours at the press site and on other assignments. It was time for some serious jogging, time to reintroduce my lungs to the cleanliness of the salt air.

I hurried over our home’s sand-dune walkover to the beach, submerging myself in the ocean breeze. The brilliant white surf was just that, brilliant, and I squinted to stare across the ocean blue. A distant cruise ship hung like a slow-moving cloud on the horizon, and I stopped just short of the water. It was great to dig my jogging shoes into the wet sand where I began my series of warmup stretches. I was fifty-three years old, but I was trying to be thirty-three. Most of the semifinalists to be the first journalist in space were younger, one of the few exceptions being the man himself, Walter Cronkite. When it came down to it, I was confident I could do at least one more pushup than the trusted network anchor.

America was blessed to have such network news anchors as Cronkite and Tom Brokaw. They had been entrusted with their anchor chairs by such names as Murrow, Huntley, Brinkley, and Chancellor, and as my thoughts return to my jog, I knew they both fit nicely in those chairs. I turned into the wind. My fast-paced walk continued my bodily warmup. I felt the ocean breeze in my face. It smelled wonderfully clean, and I grinned widely, remembering Cronkite. He’s just a hell of a fellow. He and Mercury astronaut Wally Schirra were some team covering the Apollo landings. Even today, Wally loves telling the story about what Cronkite said on the air when Armstrong and Aldrin touched down on the moon.

Walter Cronkite tells Jay Barbree, “I hope they get the Shuttles’ plumbing fixed so we can fly before our plumbing stops working.” (Barbree Collection).

Schirra, the worrier, kept bugging Cronkite. “Whatta we gonna say when they land on the moon? It’s gotta be historic, right?”

“Don’t worry about it, Wally,” Cronkite assured the astronaut. “I’ll have something to say. It’ll be fine.”

Yep, it was.

After fighting off computer problems, Eagle landed softly on the moon’s Sea of Tranquility. Millions were listening to what the New York Times called Walter-to-Walter coverage as Neil Armstrong reported: “Houston, Tranquility Base here. The Eaglehas landed.”

Capsule communicator Charlie Duke answered, “Roger, Tranquility. We copy you on the ground. You’ve got a bunch of guys about to turn blue. We’re breathing again. Thanks a lot.”

The first humans were on the moon. It was Cronkite’s job to string profound words together—words for the history pages. Viewers listened intently. The master wordsmith sighed and said, “Oh, boy! Whew! Boy!”

I laughed aloud. Walter Cronkite was simply the greatest. We all did our best to emulate this genuine and loved man. The truth was, we did no better than he. You’ll not find our words in print recording the century’s most historic event.

Suddenly I was back to the present. I moved my jog into a perfect rhythm—running with the wind, matching my speed with the sea gulls flying and darting overhead. Stress had fled. The “runner’s high” would soon be flooding my body.

I let my mind drift into the future. What if I should be selected as the first Journalist in Space? A magnificent obsession. My listeners would hear a commentary of absolute candor. That was a given. They would hear my reports of fears, of sensations, of exuberance, of wonder. I would take them along for the thundering and rattling ride through clouds and sky, through the heavens themselves, into orbit. Together, we would tumble as softly as a falling snowflake into weightlessness. There we would experience the thrill of swift sunrises and sunsets, of the whirling galaxies, the dancing nebulas, and the stars—so many, we so few.

To soar through space was indeed a magnificent obsession, and jogging was a minor price for me to pay for so much promise.

Running was not only a time to dream. It was also a time to think, to reflect, and give thanks. I’m not a staunch religious man, but I feel there is something more—something beyond this life.

My wife, Jo, and I had a son born five weeks premature November 22, 1964. The local hospital failed to take proper precautions. Our baby developed Hyland’s Membrane Disease a day after his birth, and we were doing everything we could to see he survived his underdeveloped lungs.

I had to visit longtime friend John Rivard, and during our conversation I received a thought message that our son had died. I visualized my wife sitting up in her hospital bed, crying. She needed me. I repeated the message I was receiving to John and headed for the hospital. We had named our son Scott, and when I arrived I found the scene precisely as I had received it in my mind.

“Scott’s dead, Jay,” Jo cried.

“I know,” I answered, “about ten minutes ago.”

We comforted each other, and, as John Rivard and I have agreed many times, my experience was real. I had in fact received the message by thought. Was it mental telepathy? Was it heaven sent? Whatever, it happened, and as my friend Dr. Gene McCall, the Princeton physicist told me, “There is much that cannot be explained by science. Perhaps, one day,” he added, “but not today. Just be grateful you had such an experience.”

I wiped the wetness from my face and turned my thoughts back to my run. I was growing tired. I was aware of the increasing strain on my body, but there was no cause for alarm. I imagine the strain was due to the extra pounds I had gained the previous eight days covering the arrival at Jacksonville’s Mayport Naval Station of a destroyer that had been hit by an Iraqi missile. Nevertheless I could feel the heavier air. My breaths were increasing in rapidity. My lungs were burning, but I reminded myself, no pain, no gain. Ahead I could see the finish line. I was tired, more tired than on any run I could remember, but I was determined to finish. No giving up…no quitting. If I was to be the first Journalist in Space, I must be willing to pay the price.

I was not aware of what was going on inside my chest. There was no pain. Only exhaustion. I was collapsing tired, and I looked up at our house, at the gray walkover above the sand dunes leading to the backyard. Suddenly, there was a rocking flutter inside my chest. It was there…


Only blackness… a pure, deep blackness, absent of dreams.

Doctors call it “sudden death.”

The little girl stared at my stilled body. She snickered as she watched the surf wash foam around my jogging shoes.

Her name was Christy. “Look at the funny man, Mommy,” she said. “He’s getting his shoes all wet.”

“Come on, Christy,” her mother ordered, grasping her little girl’s hand. “He’s drunk, honey. Stay away from him.”

I was later told that others near my lifeless body paid little notice. It wasn’t all that unusual to see a person lying on the crowded sand. Puzzling, but not alarming to most who made it a practice not to get involved.

David Frank, an engineer for RCA, was well into his daily walk as he approached my lifeless form.

“My God,” he spoke to no one. “That guy just jogged by me.”

He hurriedly knelt down and felt for my pulse. There was none.

Frank had spent many years on the Eastern Missile Range, assigned to island tracking stations where CPR was a necessity learned—where doctors and trained medical personnel were a scarcity. He knew what had to be done.

Quickly he began CPR, pumping my chest and blowing air into my lungs, and he would later tell me I coughed, tried to breathe on my own. But there was no luck. The breathing stopped again. Frank turned, looking for help. “Call the Rescue Squad,” he shouted to passersby.

One block north, Pat Sullivan, a college student, was at work at the restaurant Coconuts. He was carrying supplies into the dining room when he noticed the small group of people standing around my body.

“What’s going on down there?” he yelled to a man on the beach.

“It looks like a drowning to me,” the man replied.

Sullivan turned to his fellow workers. “Any of you know CPR?”

None responded.

He quickly ran the block to where David Frank was on his knees.

He stared at my lifeless body and froze. “My God,” he shouted. “It’s Mr. Barbree.”

“You know him?” David Frank asked.

“I sure do,” the young man responded. “His daughter Karla and I are friends,” he said as he turned and pointed. “They live right up there, that house on the ocean.”

My attempted revival was taking place within the shadows of the Park Place Condominiums. There, Debi Hall was busy preparing dinner, annoyed with her detective husband for leaving the police radio on. The constant 10–4s and law-enforcement chatter were getting on her nerves.

She paid scant attention to the call that a man was down on the beach and the Rescue Squad was rolling, until she heard the location. Then she ran to the balcony, looked down, and saw two men working on a lifeless body.

On her way out the door, she stopped only long enough to turn off the stove.

Debi Hall had been trained as an emergency medical technician to react quickly to any life-threatening situation. Her job was to take care of workers on the nation’s spaceport, including the astronauts.

Within seconds she was on the beach, moving Pat Sullivan and David Frank aside. First she checked for my pulse. There was none. Then she resumed CPR. She knew it was critical to keep oxygen and blood moving to the brain and other vital organs.

She completed her first sequence and shouted in my ear. “Don’t go to the light! Don’t go to the light! You’re gonna be all right.”

She kept the rhythm going tirelessly. “Where the hell is that Rescue Squad?” she yelled.

Ed Clemons and Lee Proctor were busy with firehouse maintenance duties when the call came in. They both stopped and looked at each other. Clemons, a paramedic, had seen it all too often before, and the outcome was all too predictable. But they had to do what they could. Once in a great while they did get lucky, and maybe this call would be the rarity.

One thing in my favor? I was lucky enough to drop dead within a block of the Cocoa Beach Fire Station and the city’s Rescue Squad.

The rescue unit screamed out of the firehouse and headed for the beach. Clemons hit the ground first.

He stared at me dressed in jogging shoes, dry shorts, and a shirt wet with sweat. “This guy didn’t drown,” he protested to his partner. “He’s a jogger.”

“That’s right,” Debi Hall told them. “He went into v-fib while jogging.”

Her eyes darted back and forth between the two firemen. “Did you bring a defib pack?”

“No,” Clemons said. “The ambulance is on its way with that gear.”

He read the disgust in Debi’s face but let it pass. He and Proctor took over, first checking for a pulse. It still wasn’t there.

“Don’t go to the light,” Debi screamed again in my ear. “Stay here with us.”

“What’s wrong with this woman?” Clemons mumbled as he instructed his partner, Proctor, to resume CPR chest compressions, manually moving the blood through my stilled heart into my lungs to pick up the fresh oxygen and send it to my brain and other organs.

My color began to return and occasionally I would attempt to breathe, what medical people call agonal respiration.

The rescue work continued until the ambulance arrived with the defibrillators.

Emergency medical technician Chris Bedard leapt from the vehicle with the defibrillator pack and immediately checked for my pulse. Still there was none.

He reached for my eyelids and checked my pupils. Good, he thought. They haven’t dilated.

Bedard and his partner hooked leads to my chest and checked the monitor. The screen displayed what appeared to be chicken scratchings. It told the medical team my heart was in ventricular fibrillation, disorganized electrical patterns causing the organ to quiver instead of pumping normally.

“Stand back,” Bedard ordered as he removed my shirt and placed the defibrillator’s paddles on my chest.

Bedard set the equipment for two hundred joules shock, and the two hundred newtons of electrical energy lifted my body several inches above the sand.

The jolt did nothing.

Bedard set the equipment for a heavier force—three hundred joules shock. Again the electrical energy jolted my body off the ground.


The equipment was reset for a third shock, more energy, 360 joules.

Again my body was jolted into suspension above the sand.

Still nothing.

Bedard looked at the others. “Continue CPR,” he ordered, moving to get an IV needle in one of my arms.

He started heart-stimulant drugs into the bloodstream as fresh oxygen continued to flow into my lungs. The CPR moved the drugs and fresh blood into the heart muscle itself.

While the medics worked feverishly to revive me, life in my home, only one hundred yards away, continued unaware that I had fallen victim to sudden death.

We had moved into the seaside house only four months before, and Jo was still busy decorating. She was painting in the garage when Pat Sullivan, face white, banged on the window.

“Mrs. Barbree,” he called. “Your husband has fallen on the beach.”

Jo’s mind was suddenly numb. She paid little attention to what Pat was saying. All she could think about was that Jay had had a heart attack, just like his brother Larry, just like all of his family. The Barbree curse, she thought.

She started over the dunes overpass; to her left she could see the crowd, the fire department’s rescue vehicle next to the county ambulance.

Jo watched as they loaded me into the ambulance, and she felt someone’s hand on her shoulder. “I’ll take you to the hospital, Mrs. Barbree,” Sergeant Duane Hinkley said.

The medics continued the procedures inside the ambulance to keep my brain and other organs enriched with fresh blood and oxygen as the vehicle, sirens screaming, raced from the beach and down A1A toward the hospital.

“Let’s hit him with the paddles again,” Chris Bedard said.

Bedard kept the defibrillator set at 360 joules, and with everyone clear, he sent another shock of electrical energy through my chest.

They stared at the monitor. A HEARTBEAT! Not perfect, but a heartbeat!

The medics stared at each other. Their lips stretched into economy-size grins. “I don’t know who you are, buddy,” Chris Bedard laughed, “but the sonofabitch didn’t win today. You are one lucky sucker.”

The sonofabitch referred to by Bedard was death, and Ed Clemons said quietly, “Welcome back from the dead, Mister. This is one time we guys won.”

“We’re not outta the woods yet,” Bedard reminded them.

“Nope, but it’s a hell of a start,” Clemons grinned.

They sat quietly for the rest of the ride, tracing the restored heartbeat across the monitor. Each knew if it had not been for the CPR efforts of David Frank, Pat Sullivan, and Debi Hall before their arrival, there was no way they would have won this day.

The odds simply were not with them. Only 25 to 30 percent of “sudden deaths” are brought back with the immediate attention of trained emergency medical technicians. But by the time they reached the Cape Canaveral Hospital, I was fighting back.

My worried wife waited anxiously outside. She turned to Sergeant Hinkley. She had to know. “You think he’s dead?” she asked flatly.

The veteran police officer, who would within months be brought down by a suspect’s bullet and have his own battle to hold onto life, somberly looked into her worried face. “I’ll see what’s going on,” he said.

Sergeant Hinkley moved to the door of the emergency room, looked in, and a smile crossed his face.

He turned back and walked to where Jo was sitting. “Hell no, he’s not dead,” he laughed. “They’re having trouble holding him down on the table.”

Jo leapt to her feet and threw her arms around the big police officer. “That’s my man,” she cried. “That’s my man!”

Inside the room I twisted, turned, and fought, trying to make sense of my predicament.

Where did all the fog come from?

That’s not fog, you idiot!

The hell it isn’t! It’s too cold not to be fog.

Why don’t those people shut up?

There. That’s better. The fog is moving away.

Look at the stars. Aren’t they beautiful? Jo would love them. But, my God, they are so bright! Well, I’ll just look at the blackness. Now, that’s black. I’ve never seen night like this before. Never stars so bright.

I turned toward the light.

But it’s not night over there. Over there it is beautiful. If I could go over there I could get away from the noise.

I struggled for a moment, struggled against the restraints before lying back. I was exhausted.

I fell back into the dark pit, back into the sleep without dreams, only to be awakened again by the noise…

To hell with those loud people! I turned to the beauty. The grass reached out, beckoning to me. The earth itself was alive, and it flowed to me, and the trees were living creatures, green-golden-silver, swaying into a canopy through which there shone a glorious golden light.

Was I moving closer to…

To what?

I could feel life draining from me, but it was being replaced, and the thought whispered through my mind that nothing in life, nothing between heaven and earth, is really lost, and there was comfort in that when the light appeared as a tiny speck in the darkness, a light swelling in size and in brilliance, filling an endless globe of darkness, yet translucent and becoming a cross to fill the world and the universe beyond. A never-ending universe before me, shining from within, and I thought of God.

But I was alone.

Drifting in space.


Where was God, I asked, and suddenly, out of the light, out of its magnificent brilliance there appeared a darker form, a bed—that’s what it was, a huge bed being pushed by two white shadowed forms, two nurses, and I heard the gallop of their feet, the high-pitched squeal of wheels needing oil…

The brilliant light vanished. It was gone.

There was only the huge bed, the nurses taking tremendous strides, crashing through the darkness, the squealing wheels…

An invisible hand grasped me, swept me like a leaf in a high wind after the fleeing nurses.

Instantly the bed and the nurses stopped, and I suddenly realized there was someone in the bed. A man. A familiar man, and he turned his head to face me.

Me. Hell, it was my own body. I was in the bed, but I wasn’t. How could this be?

Where are we going? I asked in my silent voice.

“We’re going to CIC.”

“What’s that?” another voice asked.

“Cardiac Intensive Care.”

I moved into the huge bed, into my body, into a body strapped to the railings with arms loaded with IVs, with a mouth filled with tubes.

Suddenly we were moving down a long hall, moving by people, by equipment, and in step with disassociated sounds.

Sleep—I drifted into sleep. Welcomed sleep…


I spent the first two days in the hospital, my body inhabited by tubes, fighting restraints, trying to remember. I kept waking up, writing on a pad one question: What happened?

My wife would tell me, and I would promptly forget.

My brain was literally swollen. The minutes it had been deprived of oxygen-rich blood had caused it to swell, and the doctors said I wouldn’t be fully conscious until the swelling went down.

The question was how long would it take me to remember, and whether I would ever really recall any of the events surrounding my “sudden death.”

The answer was yes; I was recalling them, but slowly. There was confusion between the real and the unreal. But after two days I’d come far enough back that they removed the restraints, removed the tubes from my throat. It left me more alert—and hungry.

The longer I lay in the hospital bed connected to the heart monitors, the clearer my thoughts grew. I was coming to realize just how fortunate I was.

I had being moving through life with the goal of pleasing everyone I met, most of all that beautiful woman sitting in my room’s corner chair.

“You are in a good mood today,” Jo smiled. “It’s good to see you laugh.”

I looked at Jo, watched as she rubbed a shoulder muscle, knew her neck must ache from sitting in the hospital chair for the past three days.

Some spend their lives searching for a mate. Some are looking for love. Some are looking for devotion. Others are looking for a friend. Most are looking for beauty. Well, I grinned, I found them all July 4, 1958.

That was seventeen days before I went to work for NBC, and I was working for local radio station WEZY. I had been assigned to cover the Miss Brevard County beauty pageant, an annual celebration with plenty of food, bands, speeches, and a bevy of beauties dressed in all-white bathing suits to accent their Florida tans, moving gracefully across a stage before the judges, and when the contest was over, I was having difficulty pronouncing the winner’s name, Jo Reisinger.

She was a raven-haired beauty cut from the same bolt of cloth as Elizabeth Taylor and Ava Gardner, and her first name was no problem.

“It’s pronounced rye, like rye bread—rye-singer,” another reporter told me, and I went on the air without the slightest hint I had just filed a report on my future wife.

The coming months would find me covering other beauty contests—Miss Space, Miss Orbit, Miss whatever—and Jo Reisinger kept winning, but not with just her looks and her figure. She was winning with personality and fairness to others, and when it came time for the senior class to elect a homecoming queen, Jo was elected.

Jo and I dated for a couple of years, long enough to know we were a solid fit, and on September 3, 1960, she got me drunk, drove me across the state line to Georgia, and married me before I could sober up. Well, that’s the lie I tell. I’ve never gotten the first person to believe it.

Three weeks passed and finally we were back home, on the road to recovery.

Mrs. Jay Barbree, Mrs. Alan Shepard, and Mrs. Deke Slayton are seen here plotting against their husbands. (Barbree Collection).

NASA was still in the middle of redesigning the space shuttles’ boosters, but a crew had been selected to fly the all-important “Return-to-Flight” mission.

NASA managers were hitting on all cylinders. They had selected as commander of the first post-Challenger flight Frederick H. “Rick” Hauck, a Space Shuttle veteran who was not only a seasoned naval test pilot; his skills as a gentleman were on equal par.

Years before as a naval test pilot, Hauck had flown a jet that blew up underneath him. The jet was an RA–5C Vigilante. The objective of the test flight on July 23, 1973, was simple: Verify the Vigilante’s response to commands sent by an automated carrier-landing system on the ground. Shortly after takeoff from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station in Maryland, Hauck climbed to twelve hundred feet and turned downwind. He was ready. He set himself up for a hands-off approach. It was one of those lazy summer days with haze, with no definable horizon, and as you looked straight down, you could barely see the ripples on the surface of the Chesapeake Bay. Shortly after lowering the landing gear and flaps, Hauck heard and felt an ominous shudder. Seconds later, he heard another shuddering sound. The Vigilante shook, and on his cockpit panel he saw a “RAMPS” warning light flash on, then off. This confused him. The light indicated that the engine inlets were somehow out of configuration, but at subsonic speed, the inlet ramps should not be moving at all. Then the left-engine rpm gauge started unwinding rapidly, signaling a flameout.

Hauck looked up. The Vigilante’s nose had pitched down. The Chesapeake Bay waters were racing toward him, and the surface waves were in sharp focus. Hauck grabbed his seat’s ejection handle and pulled. His seat’s rocket blasted him away, free from the flames beneath his feet. Rick Hauck had just ejected from an exploding fireball and lived.

Now he would command the most important flight in the Space Shuttles’ history—a flight that would result in either the space planes’ rebirth or their demise.

I wasn’t the only one ready to get back to work.

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