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KPTS films men's recollections of 1970 Wichita State football plane crash

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Thursday, Oct. 1, 2009, at 12:05 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, July 21, 2010, at 10:33 p.m.

Dave Lewis came down from the mountain in Colorado with a pine tree. He also came down a little more healed from the plane crash on Oct. 2, 1970.

"I had to go see it before I died," he said. "It was good that I did.

"Scary, though."

Lewis is one of the three survivors of the Wichita State University football plane crash who visited the site in late July. Lewis, Randy Jackson and Rich Stephens traveled to Colorado to take part in a documentary by KPTS, Channel 8. "Black and Gold — Remembering the WSU Plane Crash" airs at 8 p.m. Oct. 8. The hourlong show, which will be screened tonight at WSU by survivors and families, includes interviews and archival footage.

The three players and the KPTS crew hiked up Mount Trelease, about 40 miles west of Denver. John Putt, a member of the rescue team that responded to the crash site, joined them.

"It was a pretty special day on the mountain," said Jess Huxman, KPTS director of content. "When it's all said and done, you just really feel honored to have been able to talk to each of these people and get their stories and share them."

The stories come from many sources — survivors, their friends and families. Thirty-one people died that day on the "Gold" plane. Nine survived, eight of them players. A second plane —"Black" — carrying players and coaches took a different route and landed safely in Logan, Utah, where the Shockers were scheduled to play Utah State the next day.

At the crash site

The group followed a logging road to a path cleared by bulldozers part of the way up the mountain after the crash. Then they veered off on a deer trail to enter the crash site after more than an hour of hiking. The trail rises to an elevation of more than 10,000 feet.

"The emotions are pretty subdued until they reach the site," co-producer Stacey Jenkins said. "Upon reaching the crash site, it just all pours out — the emotions are very evident as it all comes back to them."

Wreckage still litters the crash site. Lewis retraced the flight of the plane by looking at trees clipped, burned and toppled by the descent.

"It was breathtaking," he said. "You could tell exactly where that was."

Lewis, 59, didn't hesitate when KPTS, the local PBS affiliate, called. He rarely talked of that day until recent years. Visiting the site for the first time since the crash seemed like another step in dealing with the guilt, anger and frustration.

"It was the first time I've been to a mountain since the crash," he said. "I tried to stay away from them. But I've been talking to family members. They wanted to go see it. I'm glad I went."

He spotted a small pine tree growing in the meadow where the Martin 404 crashed. He dug it up and carried it down. He planted it in his backyard, where he reports it is green and growing.

He calls the tree "Donnie" in honor of his best friend and one of the 14 players who died that day. Defensive back Donnie Christian and Lewis, a defensive end, met when they were youngsters and became best friends in Duncan, Okla.

A compelling story

Huxman said the idea to do the documentary came up in a brainstorming session. He and co-producers Gabe Juhnke and Jenkins wanted to tell a story with local interest that made good television. All three had the plane crash in mind when they began tossing out ideas.

"Being a Wichita State alumnus, it was something I grew up listening to ever since I was a child," Juhnke said. "Just walking on campus and seeing the monument and seeing the empty stadium, it speaks volumes."

They wanted the documentary to give the tragedy a face and a voice. They wanted to give Wichitans who remembered an update and introduce the history to a younger generation.

Interviews with the survivors are not the only highlight. Howard Johnson, father of deceased player Ron Johnson, walked to the site one day before the survivors to tell his story. Coach Ben Wilson's daughter, Elizabeth, lost both parents in the crash. She has returned to Wichita and tells her story of life after the crash.

"Basically, she said it was like a secret because she didn't talk about it... she returned to Wichita, and she is going to Wichita State next year," Jenkins said.

KPTS spent $1,500 for NBC's footage of WSU's first game after the crash, a trip to Little Rock to play the Arkansas Razorbacks. Coach Bob Seaman, elevated to replace Wilson, gives a pep talk before the game. The camera follows injured player John Hoheisel, on crutches, to midfield for the coin flip. After the game, players from both teams embrace.

"That's 76 seconds we paid dearly for," Huxman said. "That's the image of the 'Second Season.' "

Paul Suellentrop covers Wichita State sports. Reach him at 316-269-6760 or psuellentrop@wichitaeagle.com.

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