Documentary about WSU tragedy stirs fresh emotions

10/03/2009 12:00 AM

07/21/2010 10:33 PM

I felt profound sadness, and remarkable inspiration, as I watched the KPTS documentary about the 1970 Wichita State football plane crash that killed 31 people. That doesn't set me apart from the 400 or so other people who were captivated by Thursday's screening at WSU's Duerksen Fine Arts Center.

The crash shouldn't have happened. It was caused, the Federal Aviation Administration determined, by recklessness and carelessness and no amount of time will ever change that or soften its impact.

It was heart wrenching to watch 84-year-old Howard Johnson, the father of one of the crash victims, football player Ron Johnson, get to the place where his son died on that cool autumn day 39 years ago in the mountains of Colorado, 40 miles west of Denver.

It was difficult, yet mesmerizing, to see three football survivors — Randy Jackson, David Lewis and Rich Stephens — recall the worst day of their lives on the very mountain it happened.

The film's producers, Gabe Juhnke and Stacey Jenkins, did an extraordinary job of telling the story of the crash, including the maddening details of why WSU officials chose such an inexperienced charter airline company and why those in the cockpit diverted from the original flight plan to take a more scenic route through the Rocky Mountains.

KPTS will air "Black and Gold — Remembering the WSU Plane Crash" at 8 p.m. Thursday on Channel 8.

As much as you think you know about the ill-fated 1970 Wichita State football team and the crash that killed 14 players, the film will open your eyes to new facts and, definitely, new emotion.

I was riveted by the memories of 52-year-old John Putt, who was 12 and the youngest member of the Alpine Rescue Team, which assisted in pulling bodies from the wreckage. The day has haunted Putt for nearly 40 years.

It has haunted all of us, really.

Through the years, I have talked to quite a few of the survivors and to a number of family members of those who died. I have been privileged to write some of their stories.

I was a sophomore in high school at the time of the crash and heard about it late in the afternoon. My immediate concern was the safety of Gus Grebe, then the voice of the Shockers on radio.

Grebe was on the "Black" plane, the one that made it safely to Logan, Utah, for a scheduled game against Utah State. He was interviewed for the KPTS documentary, too, at his home in California. When he spoke about doing the broadcast for the Shockers' Oct. 24 game at Arkansas — the beginning of team's "Second Season" — I cried.

This isn't a broadcast you'll be able to watch without a box of tissues. But the goal of the filmmakers isn't to make us sob. It's to make us think. And remember. And empathize.

It was fascinating to hear from Elizabeth Wilson Winterbone, the daughter of former WSU football coach Ben Wilson and his wife, Helen, both of whom died in the crash. Winterbone spoke eloquently of her parents and of how she didn't hear about the crash until the next morning from the people who were babysitting her.

As the documentary unfolded, I couldn't help but think about all of the Wichita State football players still out there who still have a connection to the program, and to the crash, no matter when they played.

While I watched, I was saddened by the fact that no football has been played at WSU since the university dropped the program following the 1986 season.

Most Shocker football seasons were futile; there were many more losses than wins and ultimately the lack of support was too much for the university to bear.

But if I were one who believed a way could be found to resurrect football at WSU, the KPTS documentary is a tool I would use.

In that 1970 team, I saw the kind of courage and heartbreak that inspires documentaries. If you were to take a poll of the eight surviving players from that flight, my guess is that it would be unanimous for the return of football.

I can only speak for myself. As much as I was emotionally spent after the viewing, I was also more curious about the possibilities for reviving football at WSU.

Will that curiosity last? Will it transform itself into something even more proactive?

It's too early to say. But this documentary definitely will inspire.

About Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz has been The Eagle's sports columnist since 1996. A native of Derby, he has worked for the newspaper since 1974 and covered a variety of beats, from high schools to Wichita State to pro sports. If you want to get in good with him, mention the St. Louis Cardinals. Provided they're winning, of course.

Contact Bob at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com

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