Lightning's nightmare can't stop American dreams

Published: 9/20/2007 12:16 AM

When Dario Sala and Wilman Conde reunite in Dallas tonight, the two professional soccer players will share a twofold bond -- infused by memories of a deadly afternoon in the mountains of Colombia and dreams of reaching America.

Five years ago, Sala, an Argentinean who was the star goalie of Colombia's Deportivo Cali team, would enjoy post-game chats on the phone in English with his Naperville girlfriend back in the States. The verbal connection to the United States invariably would pry his young roommate, Conde, away from his PlayStation video games.

"Wilman was always interested," Sala recalls. "He would say, 'Dario, bring me there. Bring me to America to play.' "

Conde, whose father was a well-known soccer player in Colombia, knew he wanted to play in the United States by the time he entered his teens. He correctly sensed his pal Sala would get there first.

"When we were in Cali, Dario knew he was coming to the United States," Conde says, speaking in a mixture of rapidly improving English and Spanish through a translator.

Tonight, for the first time since a devastating tragedy on the field in Colombia, the two friends with suburban ties will share the American soccer dream in the Major League Soccer Primetime Thursday matchup on ESPN2, when Sala's FC Dallas squad will host Conde's Chicago Fire.

Sala, 32, married Margot Wahlke of Naperville and the couple are expecting a baby girl, Alexandra Victoria, next month. Conde, 25, who signed with the Fire this month after being the leading defender on his Colombia team, bought a house in Lake Zurich last week and hopes to move his wife, Ana Sofia, and their 14-month-old daughter, Maria Camila, to the U.S.

But their hope-filled new life holds bitter memories.

On Oct. 24, 2002, Sala and Conde joined their Cali teammates on their practice field, tucked into the mountains.

"There was no cloud in the sky. We saw sun," Conde remembers.

Then, a light rain forced the players to take their usual precautions against lightning strikes, removing all earrings, rings, necklaces and other metal that could conduct electricity.

"We were totally accustomed to those storms," says Sala, speaking in English. His closest friend on the team, Herman "Carepa" Gaviria, laughed off the threat.

"I remember him saying he could never die by a lightning bolt. Fifteen minutes later, he got a lightning bolt through his chest," Sala says.

"He [Gaviria] said, 'One lightning will not kill me,' but it did," says a somber Conde, who was in the nearby gym getting therapy on a minor injury when the lightning hit. "I saw the lightning bolt when it hit Carepa. The lightning burned his shoes and his shorts and his T-shirt. I felt a ton of heat when the impact happened."

Sala, who was in goal near a lightning rod designed to draw lightning away from the players, felt more than heat. The bolt hit a stadium light pole and shot across the field, killing Gaviria and causing a series of heart attacks in teammate Giovanny Córdoba, who would die three days later.

The blast knocked all two dozen players and coaches on the field to the ground.

"The sound and the light, they were all together," Sala says. "You feel like someone hit you in the neck. You see stars, like in a cartoon. We were all down. It was like a battlefield."

As they got to their feet and ran from the field, "we realized that four players were still down," Sala says. Another nearby lightning strike made everyone flinch.

"Me, the other goalkeeper, four or five of us came back for the players," Sala says. "The decision to come back was hard for me. I prayed, 'Please, God, don't let the lightning bolt hit me as I go back for our partners.' There were 15 to 30 lightning bolts in three or four minutes. It was incredible."

The ambulance couldn't make it through the wet ground to the remote field tucked in the mountains, so the players, sobbing and in shock, had to carry their fallen comrades off the field.

"The lightning left a black mark on the field," Conde says, drawing a cross in the middle of his sketch of the field. "Every day, we saw the black X on the field where our friend died."

From the goalie's box, the scorched earth looked more like a Z, says Sala, who remembers having a hard time returning to the team dormitory and seeing the empty beds of his two dead teammates.

"I don't want to be here anymore," Sala remembers thinking. "I just want to have an easy life. I don't want to play soccer anymore."

Psychologists helped surviving players cope with the loss. A week later, the devastated team played their arch rival ("like the Cubs playing the Sox," Sala says) in front of 45,000 rabid fans.

"We were crying very much in our game," Sala remembers of the emotional contest. Conde and Sala helped lead their team to victory.

The team went on to play unexpectedly well in the prestigious Copa Libertadores tournament, and Sala won honors as the league's best goalkeeper.

Sala's career took him to 12 teams in four nations, but he kept in touch with Conde through phone calls and e-mails. Tonight would be their first time playing in the same game since the season of the lightning strike, if Conde hadn't gotten a red card in his last game, forcing him to sit out the Fire's game against Sala and Dallas.

They'll have a post-game dinner instead, and talk of their young families and life in the United States.

"We never, in five years, talk about the lightning bolt," Sala says. "We never will, I guess."

But the memory of that day left its mark. Sala has a small tattoo to fill in the part of his right eyebrow that was burned off by the lightning. Both he and Conde struggle to hold back emotions as they talk softly about that day.

"It was a really sad day. We lost great friends," Conde says.

But surviving the tragedy also gave them strength.

"From a different point of view, it was positive for my life," Sala says. "You realize how important is your family, your friends and the people who really love you."

It gives perspective and an appreciation for the lives they have now.

"In sports, my job, the pressure is really nothing," Sala says. "I'm still a fierce competitor guy. For me, I'm going to enjoy this moment. It's beautiful for me to be part of this."

Conde says he plays without a thought of the heartbreak -- until he sees lightning. In his first game with the Fire on Sept. 8, lightning forced a half-hour delay.

"I was the first one to run off the field," the young defender says. "If I see one lightning, I get off the field. I screamed for my teammates and the referee to get off the field, too."

When the threat passed, so did the fear. Conde returned to make the pass that led to Fire's game-winning goal.

"I'm a professional," Conde says. "I remember the pain of that day, but I have to forget that and play for 90 minutes."

Both players say the lightning gave them a respect for nature, and an uneasiness about storms.

"I was driving with my wife (last November) and I saw a lightning bolt. I had to stop the car and let my wife drive," Sala says.

"If there's lightning anywhere, he won't leave the house," Margot Sala says. "I ended up driving during the storm because it evokes a lot of sad memories."

Conde says he wants his family inside.

"I don't leave the house when there is lightning," Conde says. "I'm afraid of nature. My family knows I get nervous with rain, so they take me in their arms."

Five years after that disastrous day, the former teammates are living their dreams.

"I'm really happy to be here," Conde says. "This is a dream come true."

But the pair have one more dream -- becoming U.S. citizens and playing for the U.S. national team.

"Eventually," Sala predicts, "we'll play together."