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Man to bike to site of 1970 Wichita State plane crash

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Friday, Sep. 23, 2011, at 12:07 a.m.
  • Updated Friday, Sep. 23, 2011, at 6:53 a.m.

How to donate to fund

To donate to Wichita State's 1970 Football Memorial Scholarship in support of Rick Stephens' memorial bike ride, go to wichita.edu/foundation or mail a check to the Rick Stephens 1970 Memorial Bike Ride c/o WSU Foundation, 1845 Fairmount, Wichita, KS 67260-0002.

To contribute by phone, or for more information, contact Natalie Olmsted, WSU Foundation development associate, at 316-978-6842.

He doesn't dwell on it. But every year about now, he can't help but think about it more often. This time, Rick Stephens wants to do something positive about it. The 63-year-old Stephens plans to ride his bike 550 miles to honor the victims of the 1970 plane crash in Colorado that killed 31 Wichita State football players, coaches, administrators and boosters.

Stephens, a tackle on that team, was one of nine people who survived the crash.

He will leave Saturday morning at 7 a.m. from Cessna Stadium, and make the trip to the site of the crash on Mount Trelease, about 40 miles west of Denver. He'll go alone, without a support team trailing him. He plans to stay in motels along the way. His wife, Terry, will drive out to bring him home.

"This is a piece of Wichita State history," Stephens said. "It's not a centerpiece of what this community is, but my effort will help remind people that there was a tragedy that took place and it needs to be remembered."

Stephens, former associate principal of North High, hopes to arrive at the site on Sunday, Oct. 2, the 41st anniversary of the crash.

He is taking small yellow and black flags bearing the name of each victim. He plans to post the flags in alphabetical order along the roadside at calculated intervals.

The flags will include the names of two teammates who have died since the crash, including fellow survivor Randy Jackson, who died last year of pancreatic cancer, and John "Mike" Noel, who was on a second team plane that day.

Stephens isn't new to long-distance cycling. He has biked to Winnipeg, Manitoba, a distance of about 1,000 miles, several times. Last year, he made the trip to raise money for breast cancer research.

But the Colorado ride might be his most challenging. On the way to Winnipeg, he found the hills in Nebraska to be the most difficult part of the trip. In Colorado, he will be climbing steadily from Limon to the mountains.

But Stephens has confidence in his bike, which has been prepared for the trip by the folks at the Bicycle Pedaler, and he has a positive attitude shaped by thoughts of the crash victims.

"Whatever challenges I face are insignificant compared to the challenges and struggles of the people they left behind," he said.

Stephens wants to raise money for the 1970 Football Memorial Scholarship established for the immediate family members of the crash victims, as well as the survivors and their families.

Donations may be made through the WSU Foundation.

He will send photos and updates of the trip back to Wichita, and the WSU Foundation will follow his progress on its Facebook page, facebook.com/wsufoundation.

Memories of the crash

Stephens said he doesn't often dwell on details of the crash.

The plane had just taken off from Denver's Stapleton Airport after a refueling stop on its way to Logan, Utah, where the Shockers were to play Utah State the next day.

Stephens was sitting over a wing.

"Most of the fellows around me were sleeping. I looked out the window, and clearly we were not gaining any altitude. I could see old abandoned vehicles, rusted-out machinery and so forth," he said.

He left his seat to visit the cockpit and find out what was going on.

He saw that the pilots were uncertain about where they were going and what they were going to do.

They had a topographical map out, Stephens said. The pilot pointed at the map and said, "Can we make it there?"

The co-pilot said, "No, that's 14,500 (feet altitude); we're sitting at 10."

Stephens looked out the window.

"All I could see in front of us was trees," he said. "That didn't seem right."

He started back to the cabin, then felt the plane bank and start clipping what he assumed were the tops of trees.

"The next thing I know, I'm laying outside the front of the airplane," he said. "I had no idea what happened."

Had Stephens been in his seat, he would have perished, he said.

Workers building the Eisenhower Tunnel on I-70 below the crash site started carrying him down the mountain. They had laid him on a pair of overalls shed by one of the workers on the hike up.

They set him down beside a tree at one point, and, as Stephens looked back at the plane, his vision blurred because his contact lenses were missing, the plane exploded.

Blessed and humbled

He considers himself among the luckiest of the survivors.

"Not only was I spared being seriously injured, but I was spared from what must be the horrific memory of climbing out of that airplane and seeing friends and teammates trapped underneath the debris, most of them still conscious," Stephens said.

Jackson told Stephens he had tried to help teammate Jack Vetter, but Vetter told Jackson, "'Go on, you can't help me,' " Stephens said.

Stephens sustained injuries that were painful, but not life-threatening — a double compound fracture in his lower right leg, torn ligaments in a shoulder, a dislocated hip and a cracked sternum.

He spent six weeks in a hospital in Denver, where he came down with an infection.

He flew in a Cessna back to Wichita, where he was hospitalized for another 5 1/2 weeks.

A report by the National Transportation Safety Board said the accident happened because the pilots, taking an unplanned "scenic route," flew the plane into a box canyon at an altitude that would not allow it to clear the mountains at the other end. The report also said they had flown so far into the canyon it was too narrow to turn around.

The team's second plane made it to Logan by taking the planned route north from Denver and gaining altitude before crossing the Rockies.

"I am extremely blessed to have been spared, and certainly humbled by the fact some very wonderful people were lost," Stephens said. "You try to make sense of that, but you really can't. It's a matter of fate, chance, or maybe some spiritual intervention."

Reach Fred Mann at 316-268-6310 or fmann@wichitaeagle.com.

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