On a warm, beautiful afternoon that contrasted with the 18-degree January morning 50 years ago, a crowd of about 150 people gathered Friday to remember the Piatt Street plane crash.
Not only was the crash at 9:31 a.m. on Jan. 16, 1965, the worst air catastrophe in Wichita’s history, it is the worst non-natural disaster in the state of Kansas, said Richard Harris, a Kansas aviation historian.
The crash killed 23 civilians and seven crew members when a KC-135, loaded with fuel after taking off from McConnell Air Force Base, crashed nose-first into Piatt near 20th Street, lighting the surrounding wooden houses on fire.
“What we saw was hell,” is how one firefighter described the scene that day.
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The ceremony opened with a speech by Wichita City Council member Lavonta Williams, who lived on Piatt when she was young, and a flyover by two planes.
Many of the spectators were family, friends or neighbors of those lost on that terrible day, and some spoke during the ceremony about their loss and grief.
Sharon Dale-Watkins said she lived exactly where the monument to the crash now stands. She teared up as she recalled that morning.
“My name should have been on that monument,” she said.
She had left the house earlier that morning to go to her grandmother’s house for breakfast and was away during the crash that killed her mother and sister.
Darell Woodard lived in the area and recalls that morning being frantic.
“Everything happened so fast, we couldn’t even put any clothes on,” Woodard said.
They used to find pieces of the wrecked airplane all around the neighborhood, he said. He wears one around his neck in memoriam.
Timmi Jackson of Jackson Mortuary said she was only 5 when the plane crashed, but she remembers a friend who died that cold morning.
Jackson couldn’t help but make a few jokes while she told her story. She had to laugh to keep from crying, she said.
Steven Carlton, an officer at McConnell when the plane crashed, was in charge on the scene that day. While nothing can change the past, he said, people can lobby legislators and officials to make sure that emergency services are properly funded and that victims are adequately reimbursed, which did not happen after the Piatt crash.
The memorial concluded with a reading of the names of the 30 lives lost, followed by a sounding of taps.