The sound penetrating the unnatural clearing on Mount Trelease hits deepest.
There is an expectation of serenity, of silence, in this resting place near the westbound entrance to Eisenhower Tunnel where a plane carrying members of the Wichita State football team fatefully plummeted into the trees. But that’s not the reality.
Traffic on Interstate 70 loudly hums about 600 feet below. That unmistakable cacophony of life speeding forward offers a stark contrast to what is found here, where strewn-out, charred remnants of a plane remain as they have for 50 years, surrounded by makeshift memorials and a Wichita State banner hanging from a tree keeping a constant vigil.
The crash claimed 29 lives in this spot on Oct. 2, 1970, most of the deaths occurring in the most harrowing of circumstances as the majority of passengers survived the impact but were soon taken in an inferno as they remained trapped in the wreckage. Two more died of their injuries within the month, bringing the final death toll to 31. Nine survived.
Fifty years later, the crash site remains a portal in time. Pine needles gathering in crannies of twisted metal are the only noticeable evidence of a half century’s passage. A member of the team who first hiked to the location 48 years ago and has returned more than 20 times says little, if anything, has changed since his first visit.
The tragic events of that day, however, have grown as faded as the many Shockers hats and other keepsakes left in memoriam at the site. Most hikers in the area surveying the yellowing aspens have no memory of the crash, despite being old enough to have seen the carnage on the news. Those with scarce recollections had no idea it happened in this state and this spot. The commemorative plaque along I-70 is scarcely visible from inside cars zooming past mile marker 217, and the resting spot of the Martin 404 aircraft has become just another stop for those seeking the dark or bizarre.
“Ghost towns and plane crashes,” one couple said, as they toured the wreckage, describing the internet searches that led them to the location.
But even as the world has begun to erase the memory, visitors have morphed from the mourning to the curious. As saplings begin to reclaim the location, the events of the day remain raw for those who lived it.
“We move on as we must,” said former Wichita State guard Rick Stephens, who survived the crash. “Not as we wish.”
The trees on the northeast edge of the crash site still wear a haunting buzz cut trimmed by the plane’s final descent, the swath creating a path that leads to the wreckage.
The twin-engine plane — one of two carrying the team on an early Friday afternoon to a game against Utah State in Logan, Utah — was flying low above U.S. 6 when it became trapped in a box canyon as it reached the end of Clear Creek Valley.
Eyewitnesses said the aircraft was approximately 1,200 feet above the ground in the valley, leaving the older plane — carrying 5,190 pounds above the maximum permissible takeoff weight at Denver — the impossible task of climbing its way over the rapidly approaching Continental Divide. Two witnesses estimated the plane’s altitude at about 100 feet. The NTSB concluded the elevation was about 11,000 feet when it would have needed to clear Loveland Pass’s lowest point of 12,517 feet just two miles ahead.
The plane banked to the right, then came back to the left. Surveying the area from above on U.S. 6, the pilots’ intention seems obvious — clear the trees on Mount Trelease, about eight miles west of Silver Plume, and a clearing might have presented itself to the south with room to turn around or reattempt a climb out of the canyon.
The plane did not reach the clearing. It began clipping the tops of trees and impacted the ground 425 feet later.
“The board determines that the probable cause of this accident was the intentional operation of the aircraft over a mountain valley route at an altitude from which the aircraft could neither climb over the obstructing terrain ahead, nor execute a successful course reversal,” read the official National Transportation Safety Board report, adopted on Dec. 24, 1970. “Significant factors were the overloaded condition of the aircraft, the virtual absence of flight planning for the chosen route of flight from Denver to Logan, a lack of understanding on the part of the crew of the performance capabilities and limitations of the aircraft, and the lack of operational management to monitor and appropriately control the actions flight crew.”
There were no other known contributing factors. There was no turbulence. Investigators determined the plane and both engines were operating normally. The weather was clear, little wind, mid-60s, the kind of early October day that spoils the state’s residents.
So why did the pilots put the plane in this perilous position?
In a 2009 PBS documentary about the crash, former Wichita State administrator Dorothy Harmon described the importance of earning the Wichita State contract to the Oklahoma City-based Golden Eagle Aviation that was hired to procure the charter flights. As a result, said Harmon, who died in January 2019, the company made it a point to provide an extra touch by showing the team various landmarks and sites along their path. There was also disappointment on Wichita State’s part that the company couldn’t meet its agreement to provide a DC-6 to transport the entire team together, a point that could have further incentivized pilots to add personal touches to the experience. Golden Aviation owner Ron Skipper, who survived the crash, was the flight’s co-pilot.
On the day of the crash, the company’s two planes — dubbed the “Gold” and “Black” planes — departed Wichita at 9:08 a.m. and stopped at Denver’s Stapleton Airport to refuel. The Gold plane carried the 22 offensive and defensive starters, head coach Ben Wilson and his wife, Helen, athletic director Bert Katzenmeyer and his wife, Marian, and others in the traveling party that included Kansas state Sen. Ray King and wife, Yvonne, who would orphan their seven children that day. The Black plane contained the second-team players and assistant coaches along with other support personnel. During a stop in Denver, Skipper bought aeronautical navigation charts for Colorado for the scenic tour. He then took his plane to the west and into the mountains while the Black plane followed the planned course north toward Wyoming on a path that avoids Colorado’s taller peaks.
“They were old planes. We knew they were old planes,” said John Yeros, a Denver-area native who had lost his starting position that week as coaches reshuffled the lineup in the wake of an 0-3 start — a demotion that likely saved his life. “We always kind of kidded that, well, we’re taking two of these planes, if one doesn’t get there the other one will.”
Yeros and the rest of the passengers on the Black plane didn’t realize this dark prophecy, made in jest, had come true until they landed safely in Logan and noticed frenzied activity outside a hangar. Assistant coach Bob Seamon departed the plane to meet with personnel on the ground. He returned to take roll, then left again. He then returned with news that the other plane had crashed.
The team was told the crash had taken place near Loveland — a relief to Yeros, who knew Loveland is not in the mountains and would make the scene accessible to rescue workers — and there were 25 survivors. It wasn’t until later, in a church in Logan, that they learned the extent of the crash’s toll.
But Stephens and those on board the ill-fated Gold plane were near Loveland Pass, not Loveland. Stephens, a native Kansan, knew little about aviation or the mountain terrain, but he suspected the close-up views he had of mineshafts and mining equipment weren’t normal. He left his seat and walked toward the cockpit, which he said was not out of the ordinary as the pilots welcomed the players to watch them fly the planes.
“As I got in, I could see they were in a state of urgent confusion about where they could go,” Stephens said. “One pilot said we should have turned around several miles ago because there’s not room now. He said, ‘How high’s that mountain?’ The other said, ‘14,000 (feet), you can’t make that.’ At that point I realized there was a big problem. As I looked out the front window all I could see was green. I couldn’t see the sky.”
Stephens turned to return to his seat but was knocked down when the plane took a steep bank one way, then the other.
“The last thing I remember before waking up outside the plane was hitting something,” Stephens said. “I realize now it was trees, as the wings were clipping those.”
Stephens was ejected from the front of the plane and knocked unconscious.
Stephens and Skipper survived . Pilot Dan Crocker struck a tree and was killed.
Inside the cabin, the impact dislodged seats as they piled up in the front, left side of the fuselage. The pile of seats trapped many of those who survived the initial impact. Those who were able to escape the plane were mostly seated near the rear, and all but one of the survivors were not wearing a seat belt. This left them thrown on top of the jumbled seats and able to access a hole torn in the side of the plane that led them to daylight.
Some tried to go back for those who were trapped. As the fire began to burn, Randy Jackson, who later played in a backfield with O.J. Simpson with the Buffalo Bills, tried to free teammate Jack Vetter Jr.
“You’ve got to get out of here, you can’t help me,” Vetter told Jackson.
The plane was soon consumed in flames and exploded.
Therapy, in 1970, took different forms.
The only therapeutic assistance Yeros recalls being offered, and refusing, came in the form of sleeping pills made available by a team trainer during that first night in Logan as the players on the plane that arrived safely tried to pass the time. The team stayed in a small motel with only three or four phone lines, so calls to frantic parents came only after a wait in line.
By the time calls were made, varied news reports had come out. Some had reported that the team was on one plane, and, when a cursory list of survivors was read, it of course omitted the players who had arrived safely on the other plane.
Some of Yeros’ friends in Boulder and Fort Collins had already left for Denver thinking they were en route to a memorial service.
His father, in his restaurant office, downed a bottle of vodka while waiting.
“When he heard my voice he broke down,” Yeros said.
It’s worth noting how humor has crept into the retelling of the stories in the long aftermath of that tragic day.
The 225-pound Stephens was carried down the mountain by two workers constructing Eisenhower Tunnel. They propped him up on coveralls as he couldn’t walk on a dislocated hip and a leg that had suffered two compound fractures.
The next day, one of the workers returned to the hospital. The accident had occurred on payday, and he had left his paycheck in a pocket of the coveralls that went with Stephens.
Then there was the you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me moment of having the team’s bus break down on the way from Logan to Salt Lake City as the players from the plane that landed safely tried to return home.
Yeros stayed in Denver for a few days, assisting family and friends of victims and survivors as they arrived in the city. A few days later, he called to his dorm and heard three of his teammates “screwing around, laughing about something.” He was taken aback.
“I said, 'What are you doing? How can you guys do that?'” Yeros recalled. “He said, ‘Look, Johnny, we’ve got to get on with our lives. We cannot just keep doing this.’ I said, 'Yeah, you’re right.’
“That’s how we kind of leaned on each other. We did all the mourning that we needed to do, then we did all the healing we needed to do.”
The team gathered four days after the crash and voted 76-1 to continue with the season. They returned to practice after 10 days, wearing shorts and T-shirts as the team’s jerseys, pads and helmets were destroyed in the Colorado crash. They played a game three weeks after the crash, losing 62-0 at No. 9 Arkansas in a game that Yeros noted for its relative degree of normalcy. Aside from multiple warm, standing ovations from the 40,000 Razorbacks fans in attendance, there was little difference. They finished 0-9. Wichita State later cut its program in the 1980s in a budget move unrelated to the crash.
But normalcy paused for the tough times. Yeros’ freshman roommate, John Dunren, a sophomore quarterback from Oklahoma City, had taken the opposite path that he had. Dunren had just earned a starting role that week, and he was killed in the crash.
Yeros attended that funeral, as the team made sure to have at least one player and coach present as each of their teammates were laid to rest.
“We look back now, and the best thing for us was to get back on the football field,” Yeros said. “That was the best medicine for us was to keep moving and being around each other and practice and keeping ourselves busy. That was, I think, the best thing we could have done. This was 1970. I grew up in the ‘60s when the Vietnam War was going on. I had an older brother who went to Vietnam and friends who went there, so we were a little bit jaded then because so much happened in the ’60s.”
Less than two months after the Wichita State crash, a plane carrying 37 players from the Marshall football team went down on its approach to a runway in West Virginia, killing all 75 on board.
Stephens didn’t play football again and remained hospitalized for five weeks. He eventually graduated from Wichita State and married the widow of teammate Mal Kimmel. Diane Kimmel had been pregnant at the time of the crash, and four months later gave birth to a girl, now named Valory Edwards.
The marriage didn’t last, but Rick and Diane had a daughter, Victoria Kubik, who is now an orthopedic surgeon in Missouri.
He takes solace in the balance of the good that has come from the event with the bad that he cannot change.
Stephens and his seven surviving teammates never got back together as a group. Jackson died in 2010 of pancreatic cancer. Some of the survivors have worked with Stephens to keep the memory alive and raise money for a scholarship fund that benefits descendants of the crash, some have opted for separation from the event.
“In terms of tragedies that happened in the world and in life, I don’t see it as the most singular terrible event that happened in the world,” Stephens said. “Now, in my world — my small world — it was a tragedy. But it was much more of a tragedy for those folks whose parents and wives and family members whose loved ones perished.”
For eight to 10 members of the team, the shared experience has created a unique friendship.
Yeros said the group has convened annually for 45 years, usually spending about a week in Florida golfing. It started as an annual ski trip and grew into an unbroken tradition. The group even printed stationery, calling itself the Shockers Holding Company, and often wears monogramed shirts.
“We go down there every year, tell the same stupid jokes, remember our friends who died who are not there,” Yeros said. “It’s hard to explain to people how close this group still is. I don’t know anybody else that can tell me that they did 45 years in a row of doing the same trip.”
Yeros continues to visit the crash site, ascending the three-quarter-mile trail alone on one occasion to spread a former coach’s ashes in the location. He has guided parents of victims to the spot and a younger brother, who was 10 at the time of the crash and grew up idolizing the older brother taken too soon.
“I told him to brace himself,” Yeros said upon entering the clearing in the woods, “but he broke down. Most people do. It’s almost universal. It’s an emotional place to go for some.”
Stephens has been four times to the site. He’ll be back in early October, riding a bike from Kansas with family members of crash victim Marty Harrison to again raise awareness of the event and money for the scholarship fund. This former teacher, high school coach and administrator is careful not to ask “what if?” as he thinks about those events. But, even as he has joined the world in moving on, he can’t escape the frustration that this little piece of dark history should never have been part of our state’s and his team’s story.
“Our accident should never have happened,” he said. “It shouldn’t have happened. Had they taken the safe route it wouldn’t have happened. Had they been in a better airplane, had they been better trained, had they been wiser about those decisions. Had the university been more cautious — the athletic department — about who they hired and what kind of money they were willing to spend. Some of the details I know very little about, but one can only speculate. You take life and you try to make the best of it. I think I’ve tried to do that.”