50 years after deadly plane crash, Wichita State players, loved ones return to the wreckage

Local

CLEAR CREEK COUNTY, Colo. (KDVR) — Every day, nearly 44,000 vehicles pass through the busy stretch of Interstate 70 just east of the Eisenhower Tunnel in Colorado. Most of those drivers are oblivious to the fact that just a few hundred feet above the highway, on the side of Mount Trelease, rests the wreckage of a Martin 404 aircraft, its broken fuselage rusting in the harsh Colorado outdoors for half a century.

“This right here is the landing gear,” said John Yeros, pointing to a swath of twisted metal. Yeros, a member of the 1970 Wichita State Football team, recently led an expedition of teammates, relatives and loved ones to the crash site to mark the 50th anniversary of the crash. Reporter Jeremy Hubbard, a Wichita State alum, was invited along to document the trip.

Yeros was a backup player on the football team. On Oct. 2, 1970, the team departed Wichita for a game against Utah State in Logan, Utah. They were assigned to two different aircraft: the “gold” plane for starting players and the “black” plane for backup players. Both aircraft stopped at Denver’s Stapleton International Airport to refuel before crossing the Continental Divide.

Team photo taken in Cessna Stadium at Wichita State University prior to start of 1970 season. Photo appears on page 6 of “1970 Profile of a Season,” a WSU Sports Information Department publication that chronicled the 1970 football season.(Courtesy of Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives)

This is where their fates diverged.

The pilot of the backup plane made the decision to fly north to Wyoming, where they could cross the mountains at a much lower altitude. But the cockpit crew of the “gold” plane decided to follow a path along present-day Interstate 70, in order to give the college football players a scenic view of the Colorado mountains.

As the plane approached the summit of Loveland Pass at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, it became clear the overloaded aircraft was flying too low, trapped in a canyon, surrounded by high mountain ridges.

“I don’t know why they did this,” said John Straka, a backup player who was on the “black” plane.

Site of plane crash in Rocky Mountains about 30 minutes after the accident taken by passerby R. L. Hanes of Denver.(Courtesy of Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives)

Just after 1 p.m., the “gold” plane began clipping trees. And then seconds later, impact. A total of 31 people on board died, only nine survived.

Shockingly, many of those onboard survived the initial crash, thrown from the wreckage on impact. But then the fuel exploded, engulfing the passenger cabin and trapping people inside.

Rick Stephens of Wichita is one of the starting players who made it out alive. The death of teammate John Taylor is the one that sticks with him the most. Taylor managed to survive the crash and make it off the mountain, but he succumbed to his severe injuries in a Texas hospital later that month.

FILE – In this Oct. 3, 1970, file photo, a charred Wichita State University football helmet is shown amid the wreckage of a plane that crashed in Silver Plume, Colo.(AP Photo/File)

“To have to spend the last three or four weeks of his life in agony and struggling, it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything fair about that,” Stephens said.

Stephens suffered a broken leg and other injuries in the plane crash. He has frequently visited Colorado to hike back to the crash site.

The Wichita State plane crash is often forgotten and overshadowed because of a similar accident that happened just 43 days later. A plane carrying the football team from Marshall University crashed on approach to an airport in Huntington, West Virginia, on Nov. 14, killing 75 people. It was the worst sports team aviation disaster in U.S. history.

Rick Stephens, WSU football player injured in the plane crash, testifies at the National Transportation Safety Board hearings held on the WSU campus in Duerksen Fine Arts Center from October 22-24, 1970, concerning the airplane crash that killed WSU football players, coaches, administrators, fans and airplane crew on October 2, 1970. (Courtesy of Wichita State University Libraries, Special Collections and University Archives)

“They were hit very hard. They didn’t have anyone to start over with,” said Gary Curmode, a former Wichita State athlete who recently hiked back to the crash site.

For survivors, teammates, friends and family, the wreckage site on the side of Colorado’s Mount Trelease is hallowed ground. On nearly every visit, hikers leave pictures, rosary beads or notes to remember those killed.

“It’s always the same, but it’s always different because someone has been here and put something you didn’t know was here,” said Yeros.+

From WSUTV:

LATEST STORIES:

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

Download the KSN News App and stay up-to-date wherever you are. You can even watch KSN News live for free!
Click here to get the app
Get it in the App store
Get it in the Google Play store

3 Day Forecast

KSN Storm Track 3 Weather

Trending Stories