Community, families, former teammates honor lives lost 50 years ago in Wichita State football team plane crash

Published: Oct. 1, 2020 at 5:19 PM CDT
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WICHITA, Kan. (KWCH) - Marking 50 years since the plane crash involving members of the Wichita State University football team killed 31, the university on Friday held its annual ceremony of remembrance.

On the side of a busy Wichita street, a memorial displays the names that carry a tremendous weight in the hearts of those gathered Friday at Wichita State.

Memorial ’70 honors the 31 people who died - WSU football players, administrators, supporters and flight crew - when a plane crashed over the Rocky Mountains in Colorado on October 2, 1970. The team was heading to Utah State for a game the next day.

This year, the names of the eight teammates who survived the crash have been added to the memorial, located near the 18th Street and Hillside entrance to the university. The $25,000 addition, which was funded by private donations, recognizes the burdens carried by the survivors and their teammates.

“In history, people tend to forget and this is something that should not be forgotten,” said Paul Harrison.

His cousin Marty Harrison was the team’s manager. He died in the plane crash. Paul and his brother, Kelly, along with Rick Stephens, who survived the crash, will be biking from Kansas to Colorado and hiking to the wreckage next week.

Rusty Featherstone was among the former players gathered at Friday’s remembrance ceremony. Feathers made the starting lineup for the game scheduled for Oct. 3, 1970 at Utah State. He was supposed to be on the team’s “gold plane," the one that crashed. Due to a mix-up, he boarded the team’s “black plane” that landed safely.

Upon landing, Featherstone and others aboard the “black plane” learned the devastating news. He said surviving teammates made a pact after the crash that they would try to live their lives in honor of the friends and teammates they lost, “keeping everyone in the family.”

“We were losing friends in Vietnam at this time, but no one thought a bunch of college-aged kids on a beautiful day would fly across the country to play in a football game, (and it) could end up like this,” he said.

In Colorado Friday, a group of about 40 people made a hike up to the crash site to pay tribute to the lives lost on Oct. 2, 1970. One of the hikers, Ken Coleman, said he was supposed to be on the plane because his uncle had invited him to watch the game in Utah. Coleman said he caught a cold days before and his mom decided not to let him go. Coleman’s aunt and uncle died in the crash.

On Friday for the first time in 50 years, he and his brother made the trip to the crash site to try and get some closure.

“It was a very touching and moving, beautiful day,” Coleman said. “Everybody said it was within one degree of the day when it actually happened. The temperature was 58 degrees (Friday), which, up on the mountain, it felt great. It was a great atmosphere with the obvious (exception of the) plane crash, but it was a good day. It was closure for us as a family to get to go.”

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