A quest to keep memories of ’70 crash from fading
AP Sports Writer
SILVER PLUME, Colo. – There’s no exit off Interstate 70 for the memorial plaque. Simply tap the brakes near mile-marker 217, pull over onto the sandy shoulder and hope no one honks.
About 20 paces off the busy highway that leads to Colorado’s ski country, among tufts of grass and scraggly brush, sits a simple bronze and stone marker surrounded by pink, yellow and purple plastic flowers.
The little-known memorial stands as a tribute to the 31 people who lost their lives when a plane carrying the Wichita State football team crashed while traveling to a game at Utah State on Oct. 2, 1970. Fourteen players died, as did coach Ben Wilson and his wife, boosters, administrators and three crew members.
The tragedy on Mount Trelease happened 43 days before a plane carrying the Marshall University football squad went down, killing 75 people, including most of the team.
The story of the Marshall crash has taken on a much larger place in America’s sports consciousness, most recently as the focus of a 2006 Hollywood movie.
The Wichita State tale?
It’s one that time has overlooked, featured not in a full-length film, but in an hour-long documentary produced by a Wichita PBS station last year.
Coming up on the 40th anniversary, there are remembrances planned on campus, tributes to those who were touched by the tragedy. Yet there’s no longer a football team to honor those who died in the crash. The program was disbanded in a cost-cutting move in 1986.
Instead, the memory of those who perished is preserved by their families and friends.
Visiting the crash site – reached by a steep, rocky hike up the mountain beginning close to where the plaque sits – is a labor of love, and loss, to those who make it, even 40 years later.
“I got through it,” said Howard Johnson, who made the trip last year at age 83 to honor the memory of his son, Ronnie. “But I don’t want to go up there again.”
Not even four decades of snow, wind and sun have covered up all the reminders of that day. They are seen everywhere along the mountainside – rusted and ragged pieces of wreckage strewn about a clearing made by the crash.
In the middle of the small meadow rests the chartered plane’s landing gear, a chunk of twisted metal covered in thick weeds and black-and-gold buttons – the school’s colors – pinned there recently by alumni who visited the scene to pay their respects.
The landing gear’s final resting place almost marks the spot where defensive end Dave Lewis reached up into a gaping hole in the fuselage formed by the crash – the blue sky serving as a beacon – and pulled himself to safety, mangled left leg and all, just as the plane caught fire.
And there, along the outer rim of this dense forest, rests a toppled log, near the gathering site where some of the survivors assembled soon after the crash and began sliding down the mountain looking for help.
Among those who convened in that spot was Randy Jackson, a talented tailback for the Shockers who later spent one of his three seasons in the NFL backing up O.J. Simpson in Buffalo before returning to Wichita to become a longtime coach and teacher.
Jackson was one of the least injured of the nine survivors. He died of pancreatic cancer two months ago at the age of 61.
Down the slope was where offensive lineman Richard Stephens landed after being thrown from the plane – no memory of how he got there, just a dislocated hip, broken leg and pieces of chipped teeth in his mouth that he spit out.
But he was alive and eventually carried down by workers who were close-at-hand constructing the Eisenhower Tunnel. Stephens wouldn’t play football again, moving on to become, like Jackson, a longtime teacher.
Johnson’s body was found nearby after his parents were erroneously informed he had survived.
About a dozen years later in the same vicinity, a woman discovered his silver ring, the one his mom, Virginia, had made for him, along with a matching one for his father, Howard.
The ring bearing Ronnie’s initials was located by a Wichita woman vacationing in the area and who had a dream in which a blond-haired kid motioned her to follow. When she journeyed to the accident site with her husband, an aviation enthusiast, she sat down to rest on a boulder and there, in the dirt, was the ring.
She returned it to Johnson’s parents, who soldered it to the father’s ring. He frequently wears it on his right pinkie, a salute to his son.
The death of Ronnie consumed Howard Johnson. A cattle rancher, he would walk with his herd for hours, trying to make sense of the tragedy.
That led him to write a musical, basing his work on 21 notes of an unfinished symphony that his son, a talented piano player, was working on before he died. The Wichita State theater program performed the production, titled “Waltzing in Heaven.”
Howard Johnson went to the crash site last summer to film a scene for the documentary produced by KPTS in Wichita, helped up the arduous slope by his daughter, Vickie.
He said going back was heart-wrenching. Tears flowed as he surveyed the wreckage.
Lewis, too, visited the spot, uprooting a baby pine tree – roots still intertwined in fabric from the seats – and planting it in his backyard in Overland Park, Kan.
He named the spruce “Donnie” – a tribute to his fallen best friend, defensive back Don Christian, and a reminder of all the teammates he lost.
Gus Grebe was running late on the morning of Oct. 2, 1970.
It wasn’t like the Wichita State broadcaster, but he got caught up chatting with an assistant coach, and arrived at the airport just as the doors to the “Gold” plane, the one carrying the starters, was closing up.
Oh well, he figured, he would ride with the reserves on the “Black” plane, get to know them better during the leg from Wichita to Denver and switch in the Mile High City. On that jaunt, though, a player gave him a copy of a novel to read and he was so engrossed that he waved off those who were encouraging him to change planes during the refueling stop in Denver.
“Louis L’Amour saved my life,” the 91-year-old Grebe said from his home in Upland, Calif.
The twin-engine planes took off from Wichita at 9:08 a.m. and while in Denver one of the co-pilots, Ron Skipper, bought aeronautical charts at the airport so they could take the scenic route through the rugged Rockies.
The plane carrying the starters went on a sightseeing tour, while the reserves’ aircraft followed the original flight plan through Wyoming and over to Logan, Utah.
It was a postcard-perfect day, the sun shining, temperatures in the 60s, hardly a breeze as the plane departed at 12:29.
The pilots of the ill-fated plane were flying low through a closed-in canyon with little room on each side and the Continental Divide looming up ahead.
So low, in fact, that Stephens could clearly make out the mine shafts and trails below, causing him to grow concerned and wander up to the cabin.
There, he said he saw pilot Danny Crocker studying a topographical map and Skipper asking him how high certain mountains were.
Stephens headed for his seat, but never made it.
The aircraft was packed with people and football equipment, and the pilots realized too late that they weren’t going to be able to pull up in time to clear the approaching peaks.
So Skipper suddenly banked the plane sharply to the right, trying to turn around. Crocker seized the controls and rotated furiously left in an attempt at an emergency landing.
In the back of the plane, an alarmed Lewis glanced at his best friend sitting four rows in front of him – fright etched on his face. A look seared for a lifetime.
“That was the last time I saw Donnie,” Lewis said. “A second later, that’s when I looked out and saw us hit the mountain.”
The plane carrying the reserves safely reached Logan. Its passengers were quickly informed about crash and the game was canceled.
Later, when the team arrived back at school, the grieving players had to make a decision: Continue their season in the wake of the tragedy or scrap it.
The vote was nearly unanimous to play on.
And so began the “Second Season.”
With 14 players killed and more injured, the Shockers, who were 0-3 at the time, received permission from the NCAA to use freshmen to field a team. Assistant coach Bob Seaman stepped in for Wilson.
In between practices, the players attended funerals. There were no grief counselors, no manuals on how to cope with sorrow.
They coped as best they could, but finished 0-9.
“We learned so much about living and dying and picking up and moving forward,” said former defensive back John Yeros, who was on the reserves’ plane after losing his starting job that week in practice.
Their first game back was against highly ranked Arkansas on Oct. 24. The Shockers were beaten 62-0 by a Razorbacks team sparked by a young Joe Ferguson at quarterback.
The indelible image that day was of John Hoheisel, one of the crash survivors, limping out to midfield on crutches for the coin flip, the fans in the stadium erupting in applause.
“Fortunately, I wasn’t on the air yet,” Grebe said. “Because I cried.”
A few weeks later, Marshall’s plane went down. Lewis was watching television at home in Duncan, Okla., recovering from his injuries when a news bulletin flashed.
“I got scared,” Lewis said. “I knew that was a jet. There wouldn’t be anybody left.”
Soon after, Wichita State hosted a fundraiser with Monty Hall serving as the master of ceremonies and Bill Cosby performing.
The school split the proceeds with Marshall.
The crash left more than a dozen orphans, including the seven children of state representative Ray King and his wife, Yvonne.
Several wives also were widowed. Among them, Diane Kimmel, who had recently married offensive lineman Mal Kimmel and just found out she was pregnant. Four months after the crash, she gave birth to a baby girl named Valory.
That baby girl is now Valory Edwards, almost 40 and living in Nixa, Mo., with her husband and four kids.
Over the years, she’s gotten to know her father through the stories of others, and by reading love letters he sent her mother. Valory Edwards’ oldest daughter even has the same dimple on her chin as the father she never got to know.
“When I was younger, I just thought of him as dad,” Edwards said. “Now, as an adult, I think of him as this young man who didn’t get to live out his life.”
Forty years later, vegetation still struggles to cover the clearing on the charred mountainside. Squirrels dart along shards of the plane’s aluminum skin scattered among bolts, rivets and fabric from the seats.
Rows of pine trees with branches violently ripped off still teeter.
The forest has tried to reclaim this ground, sprouting tiny pines and wispy grass around twisted wreckage and melted streams of aluminum.
But some scars can’t be covered up.
At Wichita State, the crash is remembered at occasional reunions and gatherings. By gatekeepers inside the school’s administration who are dedicated to preserving the memory. And at a memorial wall that lists the names of those who perished.
Although Wichita State no longer plays football, teammates and survivors from the crash refuse to let the memories of the program’s darkest day disappear.
“We allowed the lives of our lost teammates to be lived through us,” Yeros said. “We owed that to them.”