The quality of tragedy is not absolute, and the death of 30 people in the scorched and melted wreckage of the Wichita State University football team plane upon a Colorado mountainside perhaps generated more than its share of bitter grief. One reason, of course, is that so many of the dead were so young and so robust. The bodies of 13 boys were found in the broken plane. Around them lay the paraphernalia they were to have used the next afternoon at Utah State on the far side of the Rockies. Black-and-golden helmets, shoulder pads and cleated shoes were strewn along the swath of charred and broken pines left by the burning plane. And last week, at funeral after funeral across Kansas and Missouri and Oklahoma and as far away as Florida, the young football players of Wichita State performed the sad ritual that should be carried out only by old men: they shouldered the coffins of their friends and walked in stricken processions to place them in the new-graves dug in old cemeteries.
Besides the dreadful toll of young linebackers and ends and cornerbacks who died that afternoon, there were others: boosters from Wichita bound for the game in Logan, Utah, Football Coach Ben Wilson and his wife, Athletic Director Bert Katzenmeyer and his wife, the university's director of admissions, the ticket manager, the team's student manager, the pilot and both stewardesses of the chartered craft. Ten people survived the impact of the crash. Dazed, some of them managed to walk down Mt. Trelease, and that night, by lantern light and by the flickering glow of the burning plane, rescue crews searched the woods in hopes of finding other survivors who may have wandered off in shock after the accident. Two days later the team trainer, Tom Reeves, died in a Denver hospital. His wife was at his death bed; she was under a doctor's care herself, for she had given birth to a baby boy less than 36 hours before the crash. With Tom Reeves there were 30 dead. American sport had not experienced a disaster of such dimensions since 1961 when 18 members of the U.S. figure skating team died in a commercial airline crash in Belgium. In 1960, in an accident depressingly similar to Wichita State's, 16 players on the California Polytech football team were killed when a chartered plane plunged to earth in a fog near Toledo.
Governors ordered flags lowered to half-staff, and there were moments of silence at football games all over the nation. At the Wichita State stadium one windy night last week the clear voice of a young girl folksinger rose above a crowd of 15,000 mourners; she was singing, "Where have all the young men gone?" More poignant than any of the massive ceremonies was the desolate tableau at the Utah State stadium at the hour when the Wichita State team should have been spreading out across the field for the kickoff. Instead of an excited crowd and eager teams there was nothing but tiers of empty seats, silence and a single funeral wreath of black and gold set upon the 50-yard line.
Yet beyond the sheer magnitude of the disaster, the agony and the disbelief became even more intensified as more and more became known about the accident. Investigators of the National Safety Transportation Board sifted the debris on the mountain and began painstaking reviews of official files pertaining to the pilots, planes and companies involved. At midweek Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe declared, "The evidence we have to date suggests there may have been some wrongdoing."
October 18, 1970
Whatever the final investigations and full hearings will prove, a bizarre pattern of neglect and bad judgment seemed to have been closing in around the Wichita State team for several weeks before the crash. The athletic department had negotiated a contract for two planes—a Martin 202 and the Martin 404 that went down—to carry the football team on its 1970 trips. The price was $24,000 for the season, and the contract involved two companies from Oklahoma City: Golden Eagle Aviation, Inc., which would supply crews, and Jack Richards Aircraft Co., Inc., which would supply aircraft. This arrangement has since been described by federal officials as a device, a "facade" behind which the companies could avoid strict compliance with regulations governing air carriers. The owner of the planes, Jack Richards, was asked last week if he felt personally responsible for the catastrophe. He replied: "Well, I don't see that I have a responsibility since the planes were leased to the university and the university was the operator. I'm awful sad about the lives that were lost, but I don't see anything I could have done."
Precisely where the legal responsibility lies will be decided through lawsuits against the various principals. (Claims totaling $1.8 million were filed last week by relatives of the two stewardesses who were killed.) Yet each day seemed to bring some freshly appalling bit of information about the crash. After the Martin 404 went down in Colorado, federal agents in Utah seized the other plane used by Wichita State, which had arrived safely at its destination, and sealed it until it could be thoroughly examined. Later, the Federal Aviation Administration announced it had found 16 "maintenance defects" in the plane—including excessive oil leakage and a corroded battery—and it issued an emergency grounding order on the spot. The agency also suspended the pilot of that plane for failure to have proper medical certification.
Then it became known that the doomed Martin 404, 20 years old, had been in storage until scarcely a month before the crash. The FAA said that the Richards company had not registered its ownership of the plane until the day before it crashed. It said the company was not certified to fly any craft heavier than 12,500 pounds, and that the Martin 404 weighed nearly four times that much. The agency reported that an FAA man had pointedly warned Golden Eagle executives earlier this year that they could "get in trouble" flying large aircraft. And it said that the plane may have been as much as 4,000 pounds overweight when it struck the mountain.
There was still more to add shock to the grief. It turned out that on Aug. 14, after seeing a brochure advertising seats on the team's flight to a game against Texas A&M on Sept. 12, an FAA agent in Wichita had twice telephoned the university ticket manager, Floyd Farmer. He told Farmer that selling such tickets for seats would be illegal; Golden Eagle Aviation held only an air-taxi certificate and thus could not fly planes as big as those required to carry a football team and its fans. Farmer, who died in Colorado, agreed, and the ticket offer was withdrawn. Yet the athletic department held to its contract with Golden Eagle despite the warning.
A final irony occurred the week before the disaster. The Wichita State contingent was to use two planes for a flight to Canyon, Texas for a game against West Texas State. But one of the planes was damaged when its landing gear collapsed during a takeoff at Oklahoma City and was temporarily out of commission. The Martin 202 had to make two trips to ferry the entire team to Texas. WSU's sports information director, Conrad Downing, said after that trip, "A few people were wondering whether we'd get there in one piece or not. Luck was with us. Nothing fell off and we returned safe and sound—well, semisound."
A week later luck was no longer with Wichita State. In retrospect, it seems astonishing that everyone continued to go along with the rickety arrangements, and that no one—a university official or the FAA or even someone around the airport—did or said anything that might have saved those 30 lives.
Now, when it is too late, everyone seems galvanized into action. Secretary Volpe has ordered an investigation of the charter airplane industry and of the FAA's methods of policing it. (There are about 130,000 planes in the U.S.; the FAA has about 1,500 inspectors, of whom half are constantly involved with the 3,000 commercial airline planes. With such minimal potential for surveillance, it is rare that a violator is actually caught unless—like a man driving without an auto license—he is involved in an accident.) All of the planes owned by Richards have been grounded. The company has been fined $50,000. The license of Golden Eagle Aviation has been revoked. Suddenly there are many reports about close calls experienced by other teams on charter flights—of feathered props and smoking engines and operators working without proper certificates or maintenance. As Volpe said, "Sometimes it takes an accident of this type to tighten things up."
There are still the dead and the maimed to be remembered, but life does go on, and there are many things to be tightened up. Last week Wichita State appointed another football coach, Bob Seaman, who had been one of Ben Wilson's assistants. And on Sunday night, in a mournful meeting behind closed and locked doors, those who survived elected to continue their schedule of games this season, beginning Oct. 24. It seemed a grim and unsettling prospect to face the weeks of practice and competition before cheering spectators with a team so decimated, with a lineup so filled with the spirits of dead boys. Yet perhaps the painful sight of watching Wichita State play football again so soon is simply an extension of a tragedy that has already come to be almost too bitter to be believed.