This story originally appeared in The Eagle on Oct. 1, 2005.
Occasionally, the quiet of Dave Lewis’ sleep is interrupted by a vibration that rattles the bedroom and noise so deafening he is compelled to wrap a pillow around his head.
He eventually wakes from this dream in a cold sweat, his hair drenched and his heart racing.
It takes him a few seconds, and assurance from his wife, Kathy. But when Lewis finally gets his wits about him, he recognizes he has relived the Wichita State football plane crash of Oct. 2, 1970.
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The memories are welded into Lewis’ consciousness and his dreams are their stage. If a genie emerged from a bottle and granted Lewis one wish, he would use it to erase those awful recollections.
But there are no genies.
Of the eight players who survived the crash, Lewis, a 6-foot-5, 240-pound defensive lineman, has been the most anonymous. He hasn’t spoken to anyone in the media – or hardly anyone at all – about that sunny Friday afternoon that turned into a nightmare.
He lost his best friend, Donnie Christian, a defensive back, in the crash. They had grown up together in Duncan, Okla., near Oklahoma City.
“He was a catcher and I was a pitcher on the Little League baseball team,” Lewis said. “We hit it off and became best buds, together from sunup until sundown.’’
Only recently has Lewis been able to tell his wife of 18 years about that awful day. Just in the past few months has Lewis, 55, started to acknowledge the feeling that has always been there, always pushed him toward reconnecting with his fellow crash survivors.
He said he will be in Wichita this weekend for ceremonies commemorating the 35th anniversary of the crash.
It has been a long, dark journey to this point, but Lewis says he is ready for this step.
“I have not been back to Wichita since 1973,” Lewis wrote in an Internet blog entry this week. “I hope that years of guilt and frustration will be washed away on Oct. 2.’’
Not uncommon for a plane crash survivor who constantly asks himself why he survived and others didn’t.
Of course, because he has never been able to answer that question.
“I have just felt bad about those other kids dying and me living,” said Lewis, who has lived in Overland Park since the mid-1980s and has sold real estate there for seven years. “I would be somewhere and someone would ask me where I went to school. I’d say Wichita State and they would say, ‘That’s the school that had the plane crash, wasn’t it?’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, it sure was.’ But nothing else, because I didn’t want to talk about it.’’
It’s because of the things Lewis saw.
He didn’t lose consciousness after the impact, but was thrown onto a heap of debris, covered by tree branches and leaves. There was a hole in the fuselage above him and despite a serious injury to his left knee, Lewis was able to crawl out.
He saw others who had made it out of the plane. Athletic trainer Tom Reeves approached. Reeves was concerned about how badly his face was burned.
It wasn’t just Reeves’ face. He died in the hospital from severe burns over most of his body.
So did Johnny Taylor, one of the three players Lewis lived with inside Fairmount Towers on the WSU campus. He died 24 days after the crash.
Christian and Randy Kiesau, Lewis’ other roommates, also died of injuries from the crash.
Lewis never sought counseling. He’s one of those who believes a man should be able to roll up his sleeves and work through something like this.
“I doubt that anyone who was in the Bataan Death March got any counseling,” Lewis said. “It probably would have helped, but I’m too stubborn.’’
Instead, Lewis wrestled with his demons in solitude. From the outside, he appeared normal. It was just below the surface that his war of emotions was being waged.
Lewis, seated in the back of the plane, wasn’t wearing his seat belt when the plane started to veer wildly, banking sharply once, then again. He knew something was wrong.
The cockpit door was open and Lewis tried to see what he could. When he looked out the window near his seat, though, he saw the ground fast approaching.
Seconds before the plane struck the tops of trees on a mountain 40 miles west of Denver, Lewis looked at his friend, Christian, seated a couple of rows in front of him.
“He just turned around and he had this expression on his face that I had never seen before,” Lewis said. “I can’t say it was fright, but I do know it was concern. He just looked at me like a brother would. I’m sure I was the last person he ever saw.’’
Lewis, like the other seven football survivors, has lived a productive life. He and his wife have a 12-year-old son and he is blessed with a happy-go-lucky personality.
His laugh is boisterous and unconfined. He hasn’t lost his sense of humor.
But he has lost something, and that is what he’s finally looking for.
“On Oct. 2, it is time to heal,” he wrote on the blog.
Lewis was a stalwart on WSU’s defensive line. He started 10 games during his sophomore season and never missed a down. Pro scouts told him he could play in the NFL.
The crash, though, crushed his knee. Left wearing only his tie and a pair of torn undershorts after the crash, his knee swollen to the size of a soccer ball, Lewis scooted on his rear end down the mountain to I-70, where workers were constructing the Eisenhower Tunnel.
He doesn’t remember how long it took, except that it seemed like forever, but he knows he was thirsty by the time he got to the bottom.
“I wanted water but they couldn’t give me any – something to do with a concern about shock,” Lewis said.
Lewis attempted to play football the following season, but the knee would not cooperate.
“Every time somebody blocked me, there was tremendous pain,” he said.
His college career was finished, his dreams of the NFL gone.
But Lewis remained in school at WSU and received a business administration degree in 1973. He worked in Texas for Halliburton for several years before moving to the Kansas City area.
“That very last year in college was really hard,” Lewis said. “I was so lonely, living in that dorm by myself. The friends I had left were married. It was just lonely.’’
The survivors haven’t had a lot of interaction in the 35 years since the crash. Lewis has had none with any of the other seven, though there have been times when he wanted to.
Times, in fact, when he yearned to.
But something kept him from making that phone call or writing that letter.
“I guess I’m the guy nobody knows much about,” Lewis said. “I just don’t really like to talk about myself that much.
“And I could never bring myself to confront this.’’
Three things led him to this inevitable confrontation.
His father, Warren, died last November. Lewis had never even talked to his dad about the plane crash.
“But he was always there for me,” he said. “He wanted me to talk to him about it but he never pressured me to talk about it. I decided I want to be a man like him.’’
Also last year, Lewis finally received a new knee to replace the damaged one. He had walked with a limp for so long, and suddenly he didn’t have one. It was a feeling that helped set him free.
“I had to tell the doctor who did the surgery how I got injured,” Lewis said. “I had to tell him where it happened.’’
Lewis had to talk about the plane crash. And he didn’t crack when doing so.
The more he talked, the more comfortable he became. He noticed his guilt beginning to ease. He learned that there’s no better tonic for frustration than talk.
And finally, a few days ago, Lewis read a blog entry about the plane crash. He responded three times, writing things he had never been able to write.
“I think he feels like it’s time to get back with the guys a little bit,” Kathy Lewis said. “It’s going to be an emotional weekend for Dave, but I think he’ll do just fine. I think he’s just ready to do that.’’
Lewis can go days, weeks even, without thinking about the crash. But he says there isn’t a day that passes without a thought of Christian, his boyhood buddy.
There has been another breakthrough for Lewis that involves his friend.
Lewis has never been to a high school reunion in Duncan.
“I always felt guilty because I knew Donnie wasn’t going to be there,” Lewis said. “And there would be all of these people asking all of these questions.’’
It was easier just to stay home.
But there is another reunion in Duncan next week. And Lewis says he is going.
If there are questions, he’ll answer them. He looks forward to seeing people he hasn’t seen in so many years and talking about the best friend he has ever had.
Guilt and frustration have ruled Lewis’ life for 35 years. Now he’s fighting back.