HE IS ONLY DAYS OLD AND weighs a wet diaper over 4 lbs., but don't take tiny Matthew Dulles de Bara for a babe in the woods. Last Monday the newborn, who made headlines across the country with his premature, midair arrival the day before Thanksgiving, handled his first press conference at Reston Hospital Center outside Washington with the aplomb of a veteran: He slept through most of it. "Hey, big guy," whispered his mother, Theresa de Bara, 35, allowed to hold the fragile infant, born almost three months early, for the first time. As she nestled him against her hospital gown, husband Santiago "Sandy" de Bara, 39, couldn't contain his joy. "He loves it!" shouted the proud father when, as if on cue, Matthew yawned for the cameras. "He's a ham!"

No question the kid knows how to make an entrance. The stage he picked was TWA's Flight 265 from New York City to Orlando, packed with a captive audience of 213 holiday travelers, many of them bound for Disney World. "A lot of families on that flight must have been telling their kids, 'No, storks don't deliver babies,' " laughs Sandy, whose new son bears the name of the Washington-area airport where the L-1011 made an emergency landing minutes after his birth. "Even our 3-year-old daughter Amanda said, 'Now I know where babies come from.' "

Amanda was the reason de Bara, a Cuban-born insurance-claims adjuster, and his wife were taking the almost three-hour flight in her 31st week of pregnancy: they wanted to give the little girl a special treat before the arrival of the new baby. The couple had nearly canceled their trip early that morning when Theresa, a payroll supervisor for Capital Cities ABC in Manhattan, called her doctor complaining of "indigestion and a little pressure." But he reassured her, she says, that it was probably false labor, just as she had had with Amanda.

During the two-hour drive south to Kennedy Airport from the family's home in Greenfield Park, N.Y., Sandy teased his wife of 10 years." 'I hope we're not going to reenact that South African Airways TV commercial, where a woman gives birth on the plane,' " he remembers joking. "We both laughed."

But no one was laughing when, shortly after the plane's 8:35 a.m. takeoff, Theresa doubled over in pain. Sandy flagged down flight attendant Meg Somerville as she walked past the family's seats toward the rear of coach. Once Somerville learned that Theresa was having contractions, the flight attendant cleared the five-seat row so Theresa could lie down. Then Somerville got on the P.A.: "We have a woman in labor. If there is a physician onboard," she announced, "please report to Row 28."

From a planeload of strangers came Dr. Steven M. Rachlin, 46, headed for Disney World with his wife and three of their four children. The Old Brookville, N.Y., internist, who specializes in preventive medicine and nutrition, had delivered a baby just once before—13 years ago. "My adrenaline was flowing at a hundred miles an hour," he recalls.

Initially, Rachlin thought it was false labor. But then Theresa began bleeding. "I took a look," says the doctor, "and I saw the head starting to crown, and I said, 'This lady is having this baby right now.' " While cabin attendants scurried to get blankets, the pilot, Capt. Gerald McFerren, radioed controllers at Dulles International Airport, 90 miles away, that he needed to make an emergency landing—and to have paramedics waiting.

"I was devastated. We were up there in the middle of nowhere," Sandy de Bara says. Meanwhile, Amanda sat several rows back with some other small children and their parents, sobbing and asking if her mother was going to die.

"I was in a panic and kept thinking to myself, 'This is surreal,' " Theresa remembers. "My brain shut down. The doctor tried to help me, but the pain was bad. I have major rug burns on my elbows from digging into the seats."

Around 9:35 a.m., as the plane was beginning its emergency descent, the baby arrived—umbilical cord around his neck. The infant wasn't breathing and began turning dark blue. "I really didn't think the baby was going to survive," said Rachlin. The doctor started CPR, massaging the newborn's chest with two fingers. As he urged, "Breathe, baby, breathe!" up rushed husband and wife paramedics James and Jen Midgley, who work for an ambulance service in Chelmsford, Mass. "I was terrified," Theresa says. "I kept praying, 'God, save his life.' "

Jen Midgely, whose specialty, she said later, is "infant respiratory procedure," asked for a straw to suction some of the mucus from the baby's airways. But there didn't seem to be one onboard. Suddenly, flight attendant Denise Booth remembered she had a juice box with a tiny straw attached in her carry-on. While Rachlin continued administering CPR, Midgely carefully steered the straw down the infant's throat. "We thought, oh, God, he's not going to make it," says flight attendant Connie Duquette.

Finally, letting out a small whimper, the baby began to breathe. A shoelace commandeered from a passenger was used to tie off the umbilical cord. Duquette got on the P.A. and announced, "It's a boy," and the entire cabin broke into cheers.

Shortly after 10 a.m. paramedics whisked the baby, swaddled in blue airline blankets, to nearby Reston Hospital Center. It was another 20 minutes before Theresa, who had been given intravenous fluids because of very low blood pressure, was carried off to a standing ovation from fellow passengers. Sandy hugged Rachlin and everybody cheered again. "They kept applauding me," the doctor says. "It was like, Wow! I thought I was a movie star or something."

After less than an hour on the ground, Flight 265 took off for Orlando, with free drinks for everyone. Before the plane landed, the captain announced some good news—the baby, who weighed in at 4 lbs., 6 oz., was holding his own in the hospital's special-care nursery. And Theresa was fine. "We were just thankful that it turned out well," Rachlin says. "It was a great way to celebrate Thanksgiving."

Matthew, now rosy-cheeked and breathing without the aid of a ventilator, is making such dramatic progress that he might be cleared for takeoff to a New York hospital with his parents sometime this week. Days after the baby's dramatic arrival, the de Baras are still marveling at the kindness they experienced. "Forget what they say about crime on the 6 o'clock news. That's just a few bad apples," says Sandy. "We, as humans, are good decent people who come together in times of need. I am going to be eternally grateful to all these people."

PAM LAMBERT
JANE SIMS PODESTA in Washington, DON SIDER in Florida and TOBY KAHN in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Jane Sims Podesta,
  • Don Sider,
  • Toby Kahn.