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October 1970

A hard rain’s gonna fall

This is not a baseball story. It is a story of life and death. It’s a story that needs to be told so that future generations will not forget it and the people involved.

October of 1970 was more than 51 years ago, but in some ways, it seems like yesterday. The Beatles were still dominating the airwaves with their hit, Let it be, even though they broke up in April. A band called Steam had a hit with a song that later became a staple of US sports stadiums, Na Na Hey Hey (kiss him goodbye). The Vietnam War was still raging, and Richard Nixon was in the White House. You could buy a loaf of bread for 24 cents and if you wanted to cruise Main, a gallon of gasoline would set you back 40 cents.

At 9:00 a.m. on Friday, October 2nd, two Martin 4-0-4 turboprop planes, labeled Gold and Black, carrying the Wichita State University football team, coaches, trainers and boosters, left Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport bound for Logan, Utah, with a refueling stop in Denver.

The Gold plane carried the starters, the head coach, Athletic Director, trainers, and boosters – a total of 40 people, which included two pilots and a flight attendant. The Black plane carried the reserve players, assistant coaches, and assorted support personnel.

Wichita State was never a power in football. They had started the 1970 season with three consecutive losses but were hopeful for a win at Utah State. Wichita State has always been known for their excellence on the baseball diamond. They’ve made seven appearances in the College World Series, winning it all in 1989, and have sent at least 32 players to the majors including Joe Carter. The Shockers have also been pretty solid on the hardwood, making two Final Four appearances and producing some excellent professional players such as Dave Stallworth, Warren Jabali, Cliff Levingston, Antoine Carr, Xavier McDaniel and more recently Fred VanVleet.

But football? Not much there. Bill Parcells did play linebacker there, graduating in 1964. The school terminated the football program after the 1986 season, the official word was due to finances, but a 168-253 record over 42 years certainly didn’t help matters. In 1982, the Shockers got close to turning things around. Led by a dual threat QB named Prince McJunkins, the Shockers won their first three games, including one against the Kansas Jayhawks. On September 25th, they rolled into Manhattan, Kansas to face the undefeated Wildcats. My parents, grandparents and I tailgated before the game. Kansas State won going away, 31-7. Tragically, McJunkins passed away earlier this year from the Covid virus.

The fact that the 1970 team was traveling in the 4-0-4’s was just by a fluke of weather. They had contracted with Golden Eagle Aviation to fly the team in a Douglas DC-6, which was large enough to accommodate the entire traveling party. Unfortunately, the DC-6 was damaged in a windstorm, so the 4-0-4’s, which hadn’t flown since 1967, were rolled out and made airworthy.

While in Denver’s Stapleton Airport, the First Officer of the Gold plane purchased aeronautical charts of the Rocky Mountains. He made the decision to take the scenic route, west out of Denver, following I-70. The Black plane stuck with the original flight plan and flew north, towards Cheyenne, Wyoming. At 12:30 p.m., the planes departed from Stapleton. It was a beautiful fall day, sunshine and clear skies, as the Gold plane began its climb toward the Continental divide. Offensive lineman Rick Stephens noted that he could see old mines and vehicles above the plane and thought they were too low. He walked into the cabin to see what was going on and was stunned to see the pilot and co-pilot frantically trying to urge the plane higher.

The First officer said to him, “were in trouble. That mountain is 14,000 feet. We’re not going to make it”. Stephens started back towards his seat when the plane veered to the right, then suddenly back to the left. He felt the wings and fuselage hit the treetops. At 1:14 p.m. the Gold plane slammed into the side of Mount Trelease at an elevation of 10,750 feet at a speed of 110 MPH. The passenger seats inside the 4-0-4 broke loose and slammed towards the front of the plane. Stephens was thrown from the wreckage, saving his life. A few players scrambled out of holes in the fuselage.

The plane rested for a moment, before the recently fueled tanks exploded. 31 people, including 14 players, died in the crash and fire. Young men whose lives were just beginning. Husbands and wives. Head coach Ben Wilson and his wife, one pilot and the flight attendant all perished. Most of the passengers survived the initial impact but succumbed to the fire. Construction workers from the nearby Eisenhower tunnel rushed up the mountainside to assist survivors. The FAA investigation later found that the plane was over 5,100 pounds overweight, and the pilots overestimated the abilities of the aircraft. Everyone on-board had a story. There was Mal Kimmel, age 21 from tiny St. Genevieve, Missouri, a newlywed whose wife recently found out they were expecting their first child. Kimmel would have made the first start of his career at the Utah State game. His 20-year-old widow, Diane, gave birth to a daughter, Valory, in February of 1971. Valory’s first words were: dada.

Another of the dead was Marvin Brown from Solomon, Kansas, which was near my hometown. Brown was a spectacular athlete and seemed destined for greater things. A young man from my hometown was on the Black plane. Luck works in strange ways. The wreckage site occupies an area 50 feet wide and 100 feet long. The size of a football field.

Many years ago, my two boys and I started to hike canyons. Then we graduated to mountains. In the summer of 2013, I was working myself into shape to climb Mt. Humboldt with my son Elijah and his wife Tiffany. Humboldt is a 14,065-foot peak in the Sangre de Christo range of southern Colorado. While not a technical climb, it is still a formidable 14’er. Especially for a flatlander like me, who has an addiction to donuts. I drove out to Colorado in late August, a few days early, for the sole intent of climbing Mt. Trelease to see the Wichita wreckage. Normally, I never climb alone. It’s not a good idea. We always err on the side of safety. Climb with a partner. Let people know where you are and when you’ll be back. Take food, water, extra clothes, a first aid kit and an emergency blanket. In the Rockies, you want to be prepared. In looking for the crash site, I got lucky and met a former Wichita State grad online who lived in Dillon. I emailed her and she gave me excellent directions to the site. I checked Google Earth and there it was, clear as day.

As I drove west, and higher, on I-70, it started to mist. The temperature dropped into the low 40’s. By the time I pulled onto the side road, leading to the trail, it had started to sleet. It was August 28th! I waited in the car for about 30 minutes, hoping the weather would blow over. I finally gave in, climbed into the back seat, and pulled on almost every piece of clothing I had. My heart raced as I found the logging trail, cut almost fifty years earlier, to bring down the engines. Everything else stayed on the mountain.

The initial climb is short, probably less than 1,000 feet, but steep. I grabbed trees for support and lumbered my way up the slick mud and rocks. I was breathing hard when I located the side trail. From here it got easier, a short loop around the south side of the mountain. I came to two trees, parted the branches and stepped though and there it was. It was a shock to see it in person. It was almost more than my mind could take in. Trees, blackened by the fire, still stood sentinel. Pieces of the fuselage, struts, window frames and other assorted pieces of airplane were scattered over a wide area. Many people had left memorials to those loved and lost. I found a Sprite can, stuck to the wreckage. To me, that made it real. Someone on board was drinking a Sprite when the plane went down. I was alone with the ghosts of the plane. A soft, cold rain fell against my face. The heavens were weeping with me.

This place is a somber site, almost religious if you are inclined to believe that way. No one dares to remove anything from the wreckage. Centered in the wreckage is a large stone with a picture of a Wichita State football helmet. The stone must weigh at least 100 pounds. Maybe more. Someone hauled this thing up the mountain to where it now sits. Mother nature, with her relentless onslaught of snow, rain, wind and sun is the only one allowed to defile this sacred place.

Properly humbled, I made my way down the mountain and drove back to Denver in silence.

In late September of 2015, I made another trip to the crash site. This time I went with my son James and daughter Krista, two of their cousins and two brothers-in-law, one of which, Larry, is a Wichita State grad. The unpredictable Rockies scorched us with a 90-degree day. I was comforted by seeing the familiar memorials. Even in two years, I could see more deterioration in the wreckage. The earth is slowly claiming what is hers.

Someday soon, I want to make one more trip up the mountain. Excursions like this get more difficult as I age, but I think my body has one more climb left. One more hill to climb.