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New book to chronicle 1965 tanker crash near 21st and Piatt

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Saturday, Jan. 12, 2013, at 10:22 p.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2014, at 11:38 a.m.

Memorial service

If you go: Piatt Street crash memorial service

What: Survivors and others will gather this week to remember those killed on Jan. 16, 1965, when a fuel-laden KC-135 tanker crashed into a mostly African-American neighborhood near 21st and Piatt

When: 3:30 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Piatt Memorial Park, on the corner of 20th and Piatt streets in northeast Wichita. The park, south of 21st Street, features a granite memorial monument, erected in 2007 in honor of the 30 people who died.

Cost: Free

New information on the crash is expected to be released in military historian D.W. Carter’s book, “Mayday Over Wichita,” scheduled for publication this fall. Go to http://dwcarter.wix.com/dwcarter for more information or to reserve a copy of the book.

Like hell.

That’s how Sonya House described the plane crash that claimed 30 lives and leveled multiple houses in her northeast Wichita neighborhood on that chilly January morning.

She thought maybe the TV was too loud when she heard the thunderous boom. Her 12-year-old son and 14-month-old nephew had just eaten breakfast and were watching “Mighty Mouse.”

But then gasoline splashed onto the pavement. And fire rolled through the streets.

“It was like the streets were burning up,” she said. “And that’s what made it look like eternity to me. It looked like the last great day.”

The scene Sonya House and others recall is detailed in “Mayday Over Wichita: The Worst Military Aviation Disaster in Kansas History,” a new book that focuses on one of the most-devastating — and mostly forgotten, some say — nonnatural disasters in the state.

Three minutes after departing from McConnell Air Force Base on Jan. 16, 1965, a KC-135 tanker loaded with 31,000 gallons of jet fuel crashed nose down into an African-American neighborhood near 21st Street and Piatt.

The impact killed the jet’s seven crew members and 23 people on the ground.

Seventeen others were injured.

The book’s release, scheduled for fall, will come just months after the accident’s latest memorial gathering, set for 3:30 p.m. Wednesday in Piatt Memorial Park, which now marks the crash site.

Author and military historian D.W. Carter took interest in the crash while stationed at McConnell in 2003. The Kentucky native said he was surprised to find so little had been written on the disaster and its aftermath.

“It’s almost like history kind of looked it over,” Carter said.

“The book is a clear, objective history with new evidence of why the plane crashed.”

The accident has been attributed to a mechanical failure of the plane. But other theories persist — ones Carter said he seeks to dispel in "Mayday Over Wichita," while taking a fresh look at the tanker’s mission, police and fire response, and eyewitness accounts of the destruction.

Carter said his book also offers a brief history of the race relations that led to Wichita’s segregation at the time and placed nearly all of Sedgwick County’s black residents in the city’s northeastern neighborhoods.

“Folks ask, ‘Well, why was this neighborhood there?’ ” Carter said. “Segregation was a big part of that.”

In other chapters, Carter said he addresses the social turmoil and community mistrust that resulted from the accident and the reasons why a monument honoring its victims wasn’t erected until 42 years after the crash.

Kansas Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau sat on a committee that raised money needed to build the monument, a towering black granite statue flanked by benches.

When McConnell Air Force Base tightened security after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, survivors and families found it difficult “to get out on the base .. and reflect,” Faust-Goudeau said. The monument project was devised in 2004 after a constituent approached the legislator with the idea.

Faust-Goudeau was 5 when the tanker smashed into the neighborhood. Her grandmother and aunt, Sonya House, lived nearby.

House, who still lives just 67 steps from the crash site, said she fights to keep the crash’s story alive because “it’s part of Wichita, Kan., history, and it’s part of black history.”

She said she supports anything that draws awareness to the crash, including the memorial services and new research, like in Carter’s book.

“One of them could have been me,” House said, remembering the dead. “I was right up here on it.”

She added: “Not enough people are aware of what a tragic thing it was. It’s really something that should be remembered and carried on.”

Reach Amy Renee Leiker at 316-268-6644 or aleiker@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @amyreneeleiker.

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