Hellish day recalled 50 years after Piatt Street plane crash

A KC-135 airplane engine lies in the rubble at the site where the tanker crashed in northeast Wichita in 1965.
A KC-135 airplane engine lies in the rubble at the site where the tanker crashed in northeast Wichita in 1965. File photo

Janine Widseth married only once.

“We were introduced on a blind date, and from the minute I saw him, I was in love with him,” Widseth said. “Flying was in his blood. He could hardly wait to fly.”

She and Capt. Gary Widseth were married five years before the KC-135 tanker he was co-piloting crashed near 20th and Piatt on Jan. 16, 1965.

On the night before he died, he called his wife and said, “I love you.”

“That was the last thing he said to me,” Janine Widseth said.

It was a Saturday morning when the tanker, loaded with 31,000 gallons of jet fuel, fell out of the sky and into the predominantly African-American neighborhood surrounding 20th and Piatt. Thirty people died in the crash, including Gary Widseth and six other crew members.

Just as the crash has had a lingering effect on the neighborhood, it also has had a lasting impact on the families of the crew members. On its base, McConnell has erected a large memorial to all the victims, with the inscription “A day that changed many families forever.”

“The thing I want people to know is that we had a huge loss that day, just like everybody else,” Janine Widseth said. “My children did not get to know their father.

“He was a fantastic father who loved to play with kids. Gary loved people.”

Widseth, 75, lives in Crystal, Minn. On Friday, she plans to attend a memorial service at the crash site.

A premonition

In the 1960s, Clinton-Sherman Air Force Base in Oklahoma sent KC-135 tankers – one at a time – to McConnell Air Force Base because Boeing was, at the time, perfecting its B-52 planes to do low-level bombing for the Vietnam War. The tankers refueled the B-52s while they were in flight.

McConnell would not be a base for the tankers until 1971.

In the days and hours leading up to the 1965 plane crash, the flight crew from Oklahoma and some of its family members may have had premonitions this would not be a routine flight.

Janine Widseth recalls a dream she had.

“Starting Jan. 1 through the 15th that year, I had a dream where each night I dreamed I was standing in front of a casket and there were all these people around me,” she said. “I felt so alone, just like I did at the funeral. I felt this was a warning from God this was going to happen.”

Tracy Lempe was only 3 when the crash happened. But for years afterward, she said, the family discussed how her father, Staff Sgt. Joseph W. Jenkins, would talk about how he didn’t trust the plane he was on that day.

“He was the crew chief in charge of all the mechanical things,” Lempe said. “My mom told me the biggest thing that stands out for her was that the crew did such meticulous work on the plane they normally flew on. My dad, he wanted to take that plane.

“He told the other crew chief, ‘I know mine is in good shape – what has been put on and taken off.’ Unfortunately, the plane they crashed in was another plane.”

Lempe, of Sarasota, Fla. also plans on coming to the 50th anniversary memorial.

A year before the crash, Steven Carlton said, he wrote an emergency preparedness plan for McConnell Air Force Base. He was on base that morning when a desk sergeant told him to look out the window: There had been a plane crash; a tanker was down.

“That morning, I didn’t need to read the plan, I wrote it,” Carlton said. “I yelled the proper code for that kind of an emergency and within a second or two, the base alarm sounded. We got a crash bus and headed off to the scene.”

The crash happened at 9:31 a.m., four minutes after takeoff. It killed the jet’s seven crew members and 23 people on the ground.

The Wichita Sunday Eagle and The Wichita Beacon described the scene of the crash: “Rescue workers, tired and weary, continued to search Saturday night through debris, which once was a high-flying jet tanker and 15 homes in northeast Wichita.

“The disaster resulted from a … jet flight Saturday morning which arced across the east and northeast edge of the city before the multi-engine tanker, loaded with fuel, dived into the residential area, only a short distance from the densely-populated Wichita State University area.”

At the crash site

Air Force medic Ivan Kirkwood, 18 at the time, was on leave from Schilling Air Force Base near Salina. A Wichitan, he was walking near his home in west Wichita when the plane crashed.

Air Force protocol for medics during an emergency is to report to the nearest base. He called McConnell and was told to report to the scene.

“As close as I could get was Ninth and Washington,” Kirkwood said. “An Air Force ambulance came by. … The driver stopped and picked me up, and we went on to the site.”

Flames fed by jet fuel and winds from the north were spreading south from the crash site at 20th and Piatt. Huge plumes of smoke and flames rolled into the sky.

“We waited and waited, and they were still fighting the fire,” Kirkwood said.

He had rushed so quickly to the site, he was dressed only in shirtsleeves. He worked in the cold until late that night.

“We waited at the first house, and it was burned out, but we could see what we were in for. There were a lot of body parts,” he said. “We didn’t touch anything until the fire was out.

“When we got the go ahead to go in … we knew we weren’t looking for survivors but bodies. And we found them.”

At the scene, Carlton was the commanding officer in charge.

“There were quite the crowds around the whole area,” Carlton recalled this week. “It was a terrible, miniature hell. We had to keep people from going in and taking something they ought not to take or get hurt.”

As a native Minnesotan, he remembers thinking how terrible it was people had burned to death.

“I could imagine freezing, being out in the snow and getting caught in blizzards, but burning to death? No,” he said.

He also remembers thinking of the pilot of the plane.

“I had the feeling the pilot was trying to get back to the base,” Carlton said. “There was a chance he could have crashed into the dormitories at Wichita State. He looked for an intersection with a vacant lot, and he tried to take it down there.”

He, too, plans on coming to the memorial service.

The aftermath

Janine Widseth said she and her husband had three boys, all under the age of 4 1/2, when he died: Christopher, Dwight and Todd.

On that Saturday morning, she was doing housecleaning in Oklahoma while the boys were watching cartoons. The boys’ morning show was interrupted, and an announcer said a KC-135 tanker had crashed in Wichita.

“I knew it was his plane,” she said earlier this week. “He had told me they were the only one there.

“Some people feel like that wasn’t quite fair for me to find out that way. But it was good for me. It gave me an hour,” she said.

“They always send somebody from the squadron out, a chaplain and a doctor to the house to tell you the news. That gave me time to get my act together and prepare myself for the knock at the door.”

Kirkwood remembers the smell of burning flesh and jet fuel at the crash scene, the sight of guard dogs and smoke and fire. He said he has flashbacks 50 years later of that day.

“There was so much destruction,” he said. “It took years to get that smell out of my nose. It is a relief to talk about it.”

He said he has not been back to the crash site since the day it happened.

On Friday, he said, he wants to go to the memorial service.

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @beccytanner.

People who died in the crash

Thirty lives were lost on Jan. 16, 1965, during the Piatt Street plane crash.

Among the dead were the seven crew members aboard the jet and eight children and 14 adults on the ground. An unborn child was counted as the 30th victim.

The crew members were Capt. Czeslaw Szmuc; Capt. Gary J. Widseth; 2nd Lt. Arthur W. Sullivan; Staff Sgt. Reginald Went; Staff Sgt. Joseph W. Jenkins; Airman 1st Class Daniel E. Kenenski; and Airman 2nd Class John L. Davidson.

The victims on the ground were Albert L. Bolden; Leslie I. Bolden; Wilma J. Bolden; Delwood Coles; Alice Dale; Cheryl A. Dale; Claude L. Daniels Sr.; Mary Daniels; Brenda J. Dunn; James E. Glover; Clyde Holloway; Denise M. Jackson; Julia A. Maloy; Julius R. Maloy; Gary L. Martin; Joe T. Martin Jr.; Ernest E. Pierce Jr.; Tracy Randolph; Dewey Stephens; Emmit Warmsley Sr.; Emmit Warmsley Jr.; and Laverne Warmsley and her unborn child.

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