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Glen Davis confidant tells of life-changing flight Add to ...

Graham Wright was sitting next to his best friend, Glen Davis, when the smoke began to pour into the passenger cabin of Air Canada Flight 797.

They watched the co-pilot burst from the cockpit and run to a rear washroom, the source of the acrid fumes. When he sprinted back to the cockpit, the two men knew something was terribly wrong.

The 18 minutes that followed almost 25 years ago would transform the lives of all 41 passengers and five crew members on board.

But for Mr. Davis and Mr. Wright, two middle-aged businessmen from Ontario, the harrowing flight would only affirm a friendship and a lifelong devotion to giving. Soon after the ill-fated flight, Mr. Davis would give up a lucrative business career and devote himself to philanthropy.

"Something like that changes everyone," said Mr. Wright, now in his mid-60s. "It was all a little traumatic."

Mr. Davis's life of philanthropy was in mid-stride last Friday, when he was shot dead in a garage outside the offices of the World Wildlife Fund, one of his preferred charities.

"I knew him as well as anyone," said Mr. Wright from his home in Holtyre, Ont. "It's very, very difficult to understand."

Mr. Wright and Mr. Davis met at the University of Western Ontario. Mr. Wright took economics, Mr. Davis took politics. They became fast friends, sharing a London, Ont., apartment in fourth year.

On that day in 1983, they had been in Dallas on business. Both men, friends by then for about 20 years, worked for the transportation and real-estate empire founded by Mr. Davis's father, Nelson.

When the DC-9 began to pitch and yaw, the passengers could overhear the pilot radioing for help.

Stewardesses handed out wet towels so passenger wouldn't breathe the noxious fumes.

The plane finally landed in Cincinnati, and the crisis seemed over.

But when the cabin door opened, fresh oxygen flooded in and the fire reignited. Mr. Davis and Mr. Wright made for an emergency chute in blinding soot. They slid to the bottom and ran from the flames. Few followed. In all, 23 passengers died behind them.

They spent the night of the accident in a Cincinnati hospital before flying on to Toronto, forever changed.

For Mr. Wright, the alterations were small at first. He took up golf. He devoted more time to activities away from work.

"I made a relatively good living at the time," Mr. Wright said. "I've certainly tried to enjoy life more. I didn't travel to the same degree. I just tried to relax. I find it hard to articulate."

But he watched his college pal slowly eschew the high-flying life. Mr. Davis left a position with the family business and took $100-million inherited from his father and focused on philanthropy. In the ensuing years, he would give much of it to hospitals, environmental causes and universities.

"Both our lives changed," Mr. Wright said. "I'm sure it did change him to some extent. He was always interested in conservation issues. He was getting older. Something like that has to change you."

Mr. Wright was later inspired by his friend's generosity. Four years ago, he and his wife donated $1-million to Western's faculty of arts. He currently sits on the board of North York General Hospital's charitable foundation.

"I've become a philanthropist over the years. It is just as much from watching him [Mr. Davis]as anything else," he said.

News of Mr. Davis's murder floored Mr. Wright. His university roommate was not known to have any enemies.

"I do accept that it appears not to be random," Mr. Wright said. "He was a really good guy. I can't put the pieces together. Lord knows I've tried."

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