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Crash site an important memorial for ‘Gold Plane’ family

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Heartbreak & Healing

By Corinne Westeman

Editor’s note: This is the third of a three-part series commemorating the 47th anniversary of the Wichita State plane crash on Oct. 2, 1970. This final part focuses on the long-term impact of the crash, including the team’s “Second Season” and the victims’ families and friends’ continual visits to the crash site.

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Seventeen thousand, one hundred and sixty-seven days.

Exactly 47 years.

On Monday, the shards of wreckage that still sit on Mount Trelease were covered by a few inches of beautiful, fresh snow. The Wichita State hats, buttons and laminated letters around the crash site were likewise covered.

But, looking carefully through the fog and clouds, a thin string hovering over the valley was made barely visible by the tiny snowflakes clinging to it.

One end of the string was at the small clearing where the wreckage and remembrances sat on Mount Trelease. It stretched more than 400 miles, as the bird flies, to the Wichita State campus, where its other end rested at the university’s memorial for the 31 people who died as a result of the “Gold Plane” crash.

At 9 a.m. Central time, dozens of people connected to the “Gold Plane” or the university gathered for a short memorial service. But, as powerful as these memorials are for the victims’ family members and friends, many of them have felt compelled to make the pilgrimage to Mount Trelease to better understand what happened on Oct. 2, 1970.

“(Visiting the site) was the greatest thing that ever happened to me because I needed some closure — I needed to touch it, to see it,” said Nancy Grooms, who lost her parents in the crash. “The first impact was the shock of seeing something that your loved ones had been in. Now, (going there) is a soothing and healing thing.”

Grooms has visited Mount Trelease four times. The first time was when she was 19 — only eight years after the crash.

Likewise, Ed Plopa, who played on the 1970 WSU team, has visited Mount Trelease four or five times, including for the 40th anniversary. He recalled how nearly 80 people met crash survivor Rick Stephens in Denver as he made the last leg of his bike ride from Wichita to Colorado.

“We went and had a little ceremony (at the crash site),” Plopa said. “It’s amazing all the different things that have been brought up there; it’s almost like a little shrine now.”

In 2009, a documentary crew from Wichita visited Mount Trelease with three of the nine survivors and John Putt of Evergreen, who responded to the crash as part of the Alpine Rescue Team.

Putt described how the burning wreckage had looked so devastating. He had no idea that there were survivors until the documentary crew reached out to him.

“You can just tell there was such a hole for all those guys that survived it; they probably had not processed it much,” Putt said of visiting the site with the survivors in 2009. “I think it was cathartic for them — they all had moments of silent thankfulness, but there was still that raw heartbreak.”

Dave Lewis, one of the survivors, said the visit with the documentary crew in 2009 is the only time he’s been back.

“I broke down,” Lewis said of his visit. “It all came back to me — the loss of my friends. ... I always felt like the guys that died were just really great guys. They were going to be doctors, maybe politicians and people that would really help the world someday, and I just feel less than that. And I miss them.”

Incomplete

Not everyone has made the journey, yet.

Survivor Glenn Kostal said he would like to one day but doesn’t know whether it would bring him any closure.

“It’s more of an avoidance. ... When I think about (the crash) seriously, it brings up emotions that I really don’t want to poke a stick at if I don’t have to,” Kostal said. “Even after all these years, it just shocks me how it affects my life.”

Ken Duren, who lost his younger brother John in the crash, had planned to visit Mount Trelease for the first time on Monday but decided against it because of the weather.

“It’s just a pilgrimage that most everyone makes in the hopes of another grain or two of closure,” Duren said in an interview on Monday. “Because (the loss) never goes away, so it’s just something that I have felt compelled to do for years. It’s just a gut thing that I have — that you feel you’re not complete until you do it.”

 

WICHITA STATE TEAM DECIDED TO CONTINUE SEASON AFTER PLANE CRASH

Seventy-six to one. That was the vote.

Almost unanimously, the 1970 Wichita State football team decided to continue its season only a few weeks after the team’s “Gold Plane” crashed in Clear Creek County on Oct. 2, 1970, taking the lives of several players and staff members.

“We were athletes and all we really knew back then was how to play,” said Ed Plopa, a member of the 1970 team. “...We came from a generation where our fathers fought in World War II or Korea, and they didn’t say a word. I think we were taught by example that you just have to handle it.”

Tim Tabor, whose brother Lou played on the 1970 team, explained how there was a consensus opinion among the players that continuing would’ve honored everyone they’d lost.

The team dubbed it the “Second Season,” with WSU offensive coordinator Bob Seaman taking over as head coach.

“It was very eerie in the locker room going to practice, Lou would tell me,” Tabor said. “You would have a locker beside somebody that was killed and they were no longer there, and he’d say it was a very strange and eerie feeling.”

The team's first game back was at ninth-ranked Arkansas 22 days after the crash.

The Shockers received a standing ovation and cheers throughout the game from Arkansas fans, especially when team co-captain and crash survivor John Hoheisel — on crutches and in civilian clothes — came onto the field for the coin toss.

Wichita State lost 62-0 at Arkansas and lost all five succeeding games. Plopa said the team probably scored only three touchdowns the rest of the season.

Of the eight players who survived the “Gold Plane” crash, some decided to continue playing football. Randy Jackson later played professionally.

However, Dave Lewis, who severely injured his knee in the crash, was physically unable to play. Glenn Kostal recovered and then went out for spring ball, but ultimately decided against it because he had lost so many teammates in the crash.

After some rebuilding, the Shockers had a winning season in 1972 — its first in 10 years. However, in 1986, Wichita State discontinued its football program for economic reasons.

“Other than my wife and children, it was probably the strongest bond I’ve ever had,” Kostal said of his WSU teammates. “We were an incredibly close group of people. Unfortunately, we weren’t the best football team in the world; but, sometimes when you’re struggling with defeats, you get closer.”

 

IN THEIR OWN WORDS...

“Bottom line, you move on and do the best that you can. It’s still there. As much as I’ve tried to make it go away, it doesn’t go away. It’s not the crash itself; it’s the friends. It was a time in my life when football and those people were the most important things going for me.” —Glenn Kostal, WSU football player who survived the crash

“I see now just how fortunate I am to have the ongoing memorial gatherings (at WSU) as an opportunity for me to heal and address my loss as an adult. Grief is an ever-evolving journey that, for me, insists on occasional pit stops to address newly revealed issues, sadness, regret or depression. Having the opportunity to connect to other orphans from the crash has been affirming and supportive knowing we all share an incredible bond. ... Our experience is somewhat different from the players who seem to have bonded fiercely immediately after the crash. The kids have been slower to find each other, but we have.” —Elizabeth Wilson Winterbone, daughter of WSU head coach Ben Wilson and his wife Helen

“I was out working in my yard, and one of (my brother) Lou’s high school football teammates stopped by the house and asked, ‘When was the last time you heard from your brother Lou?’ He’d heard on the radio that a plane carrying the WSU football team crashed in the Rocky Mountains. Whatever he said after that, my mind went blank. ... Relatives and friends of the family came to the house in support; it was like a vigil. Around 6:30 in the evening, the phone rings. My dad answers and he says, “Junior.” Everyone started hugging and crying.” —Tim Tabor, brother of Lou Tabor who had been on the team’s other plane that landed safely in Utah

“My mother basically never recovered. There are scars on everyone. It impacted everyone who knew John. He was a stellar kid ... and an amazing brother. My family was the only family that didn’t sue. My dad came to me and said, ‘We can sue if you want to, but it’s going to take 10 years, we’ll get $50,000 and it’ll put your mother through hell.’ I was of the opinion that it would not be worth it. ... It’s sad beyond comprehension, but it doesn’t undo it; the lesson that you take away from it is that you have to put one foot in front of the other and move on, which I’ve done. but it probably still appears in my heart someplace.” —Ken Duren, brother of John Duren who was on the “Gold Plane”

“I think that the plane crash brought out the best of Wichita. My mom and dad were involved with such a great group of people. It’s such a good community: down-home, caring, loving people. That is the best part of it — that we saw a community come together to honor the struggle.” —Nancy Grooms, daughter of WSU fans John and Etta Mae Grooms who were on the Gold Plane

“I never got to express how much I admired (the children who were orphaned) up until a few years ago. ... Mary Lynn King, she was the oldest of seven children. All of a sudden, she had to go from being a college student to a mother and take care of six kids, and she did it. She was my biggest hero. ... That’s what I would like for people to remember about that: those kids stepping up and dealing with something that they didn’t think would happen for years and years.” —Dave Lewis, WSU football player who survived the crash