Editor’s note: This story originally appeared in The Eagle on Oct. 3, 1970.
SILVER PLUME, Colo. — A plane carrying the top Wichita State University football players, athletic staff members and team boosters crashed and burned early Friday afternoon in rugged, snow-patched mountain country near the Continental Divide.
Twenty-nine persons, including 13 football players were believed killed.
Eleven persons, including nine football players, the plane’s co-pilot and the team trainer, were known to have survived the flight group, composed of 36 in the Wichita group and four crew members.
The unaccounted for and presumed dead included Bert Katzenmeyer, 52, WSU athletic director; head football coach Ben Wilson, 44, and Dr. Carl Fahrbach, 50, WSU admissions director. The wives of Katzenmeyer and Wilson were also presumed dead.
A Colorado State Patrol officer said there were no chance of other survivors.
The Clear Creek (Colo.) County coroner’s office said it may be several days before positive identification of the dead could be established. Under Colorado law, no one can be ruled deal until a coroner makes identification. The FBI will be assisting in identification of the bodies, many of which were badly burned.
The Colorado State Patrol said it was originally informed 42 persons were on board. However, two Wichitans, former WSU information director George Worden and his wife, Merry, decided Thursday night not to make the trip.
The crash occurred about 2 p.m. (CT), shortly after the twin-engine Martin 4-0-4 took off from Denver after refueling.
Cause of the crash has not been determined.
Survivors were taken by ambulance and Army helicopter to hospitals in Denver, about 55 miles east of where the plane went down near the eastern base of 11,952-foot Loveland Pass, a main route across the Continental Divide.
Most of the players aboard the plane that went down were first stringers.
A second place carrying 23 other players and the rest o the staff and boosters landed safely in Logan, Utah, where Wichita State was to play Utah State on Saturday. The game was canceled.
Sheriff Harold Brumbaugh of Clear Creek County, Colo., said the plane crashed in timer just off U.S. 6, a heavily traveled winter route to Colorado ski country. He said the plane fell and burned in the Dry Gulch Creek area, about eight miles west of this old mining town. Some witnesses said they believed the pilot was attempting to land on the highway.
The crash site was near the Loveland Basin ski area and the construction site for the Straight Creek Tunnel.
“This is a sad, tragic day in the history of Wichita State University,” said WSU President Clark Ahlberg, who kept a telephone line open to St. Anthony's Hospital where four of the injured were, to keep track of condition reports.
The other seven injured were at Luther Hospital, Wheatridge, Colo.
“We saw a plane coming up the canyon, very slow and very low,” Said George J. Gruenwald, a tourist from Huntington Beach, Calif. He said the plane narrowly missed their car in its plunge to earth.
“My wife said, ‘My God, I hope he doesn’t land on the highway in front of us. But instead he veered off to the right a little bit and kind of up on a knoll, and I thought what the devil is he going to do back there because there just another big mountain back there.
“The next thing I saw was a big ball of fire coming up.”
Some survivors wandered dazed out of the heavy forest country onto highways near Loveland Pass, and into doctor in nearby Idaho Springs treated several of the injured.
Craig Goodall, 23, a worker on the Straight Creek Tunnel project, said he and other works heard the plane come over, saw an engine smoking and hear a series of explosions.
Another worker, Ron Felzien, 24, said he saw the plane crash through the trees , and he and others headed for the site. “On the way up we met six guys coming down. One of them said, ‘Am I burned bad? How do I look?’ The other said, ‘You’re still pretty. Your face isn’t burned.’”
Felzien said the six identified themselves as members of the Wichita State football team.
“This is a mess,” said Sheriff Brumbaugh. “We just don’t have the facilities to handle a tragedy like this in a small town.”
When she hit, it took off the tops of the trees but it didn’t break up — only the wings came off,” said Bob Nichols, 25, another construction worker.
Nichols said the plane ripped a path 50 yards wide and 150 yards long through the heavy pine trees. The gas tank on the plane ruptured and set the craft afire.
The National Transportation Safety Board in Washington said an eight-man team headed by Louis M. Thayer left immediately to investigate the accident.
The planes’ crews were from Golden Eagle Aviation Co. headquartered at Oklahoma City. The planes came from Jack Nichols Aircraft Co. of Oklahoma City.
A member of the construction crew near the crash site said the plane came down “right in the middle of a mountain.”
An orange football jersey, white football pads and helmet were seen at the wreckage of the twin-engine Martin 4-0-4.
The scene is about 1 1/2 miles east of the base of Loveland Pass.
The plane that crashed carried the first and second teams.
“It’s tradition that the boys who win the starting positions and compose the second team always ride with the head coach,” said Fred Conti, one of the assistant coaches.
At Utah State, flags were lowered to half staff and a memorial service was scheduled for early next week.
“We are most concerned and saddened.,” said Dr. Glenn L. Taggert president of Utah State. “Our thoughts are with the parents and families of those whose lives were lost in the accident and we extend to them the heartfelt sympathies of the university.
“Our thoughts, too, are with our friends at Wichita State University whose sense of grievous loss is shared by all at Utah State University.
Meanwhile, the plane which arrived safely at Logan, a Martin 2-0-2, was impounded by the Federal Aviation Administration for inspection. It is a slightly smaller version of the Martin 4-0-4 which crashed.