UTAH STATE AGGIES

50 Year Anniversary: Plane With Witchita State Players Crash While Traveling To Play Utah State

Oct 2, 2020, 4:23 PM | Updated: 4:32 pm
(Photo courtesy of USU Special Collections)...
(Photo courtesy of USU Special Collections)
(Photo courtesy of USU Special Collections)

LOGAN, Utah – October 2 marks the 50-year anniversary of a plane that crashed that was carrying Wichita State football players and supporters as they were heading to Logan to face Utah State.

On October 2, 1970, one of their two planes crashed on Mount Trelease, near Silver Plume, Colorado. 29 people died at the scene and two more died later from their injuries.

Rick Stephens was on the Martin 404 chartered aircraft carrying players and supporters when the plane crashed. He was one of the survivors from the crash and spoke to Utah State Athletics about his experience.

What Happened

Stephens was starting to get concerned about how low the plane was when they took off from Denver’s Stapleton International Airport.

“Most of the players were kind of dozing off,” Stephens recalled. “I was sitting by Jack Vetter, one of the kids I was closest to, and I looked out through the window. I could see that there were old mines and old vehicles above us, and we were quite a bit below the tops of the mountains.”

That’s when Stephens went to the cockpit of the plane.

“I decided to get up out of curiosity, and basically that was the move and fate that saved my life,” Stephens said. “I got to the cockpit and could see that the pilots were very concerned and urgently looking at a topographical map. One said to the other – I don’t remember whom – ‘Can we make it over there, at that pass?’ He said, ‘No. That’s 14,000 feet,’ and we were sitting at 10 or 11,000. I decided at that point, well, I don’t know if I decided, but the instinct occurred to me that I should get away from the front of the aircraft. As I looked out the window as I turned to leave, all I could see were green trees, and no blue sky.”

Utah State spoke with other survivors to recall the horrible tragedy along with Aggie players to get their perspective from the crash.

Check out the full story, here.

Tony Adams was the starting quarterback. When he heard the news of the crash, he was sitting in offensive coordinator Garth Hall’s office.

“We were sitting in the office going through the game plan when the phone rang,” Adams said. “Nobody else was there, just the three of us, and we were the first three to find out about the crash, because they didn’t know how to get a hold of the athletic director. He wasn’t in his office, so they called the football office, and we were there going through the game plan.

“I looked at Garth and he had that, ‘You’re kidding,’ facial expression, where you know something happened, you just don’t know what. When he hung up, he just looked at us and said, ‘Wichita State crashed.’ We were speechless, and you just assumed they were all on one plane. We didn’t know there were two planes, so we sat there for a while and thought about every player and the coaches. It affected everybody.”

The Shockers had two planes that had names based on their school colors. The “Gold” plane carried first-string players, the head coach, boosters and other guests. The “Black” plane held reserves and other coaches.

The Black plane headed north towards Logan but the Gold plane took a different path. A more scenic route through the mountains. Ron Skipper, the co-pilot of the Gold Plane told the Black Plane’s crew they were taking a different route.

As the Gold Plane was flying too low, Skipper initiated a 45-degree turn to the right. Then the pilot Dan Crocker suddenly yelled “I’ve got the airplane,” and initiated a sharp left bank.

Soon after, the aircraft began to vibrate. Crocker put the nose of the aircraft down, and shortly thereafter Flight N464M slammed into the side of Mount Trelease around 1 p.m., and about 40 miles west of Denver. The elevation of the site is 10,750 feet. The NTSB estimated the plane exceeded its takeoff weight limitation by around 5,165 pounds.

The crash site is a 575-mile drive from Wichita.

Stephens was knocked to the floor when he was walking back to his seat after visiting the cockpit.

The plane took a sharp bank to the right and then another one to the left,” Stephens said. “I fell to the floor and could feel what I believe turned out to be the wings clipping trees. At that point, I was knocked unconscious. The next thing I know, I’m outside of the airplane, and how I got there, I have no idea. I laid there for I don’t know how long, then tried to get up after spitting out broken teeth and gravel, and so forth. It was such a surreal situation that my mind, it was just disbelief, but you come fairly quickly to realize that it was a serious, serious accident.”

When the plane crashed, Stephens was thrown 20 yards in front of the plane. He laid on the side of the mountain with double compound fractures in his right lower leg, a dislocated hip, a cracked sternum and numerous cuts and bruises.

“My injuries, although serious, were not life-threatening,” Stephens said. “There were three construction workers, who were working on the Eisenhower Tunnel, came upon the scene, and they saw me. These guys basically saved my life. Had I remained where I was, I don’t know that I would’ve made it after the plane caught fire and exploded. They carried me down the mountain – if  you have never been to the site, for an ordinary person, it’s a pretty grueling climb.

“I will say this about the pilots, however incompetent they were, they managed to get the angle of the impact up, so that the nose did not hit first. But it was able to come in at somewhat of a belly landing, and had they not done that, I don’t think any of us would’ve survived.”

Aftermath

When the Black Plane arrived in Logan, assistant coach and offensive coordinator Bob Seaman took roll. Then he informed the rest of the players and coaches on the Black Plane of the Gold Plane crash.

Wichita State wide receiver John Yeros was on the Black Plane. He explained his experience when he found out about the Gold Plane crash when they arrived in Logan.

“They got us off the plane and onto a bus and told us not to talk to anybody,” Yeros said. “We didn’t speak to any of the press, just got on the bus and went to the motor lodge, where it had two floors and all of the rooms’ doors opened directly outside. The upper level had a concrete pad with a metal railing and you’d go down the steps to the parking lot. We got there and hung around, and some of the Utah State players came over, but we were still in shock.”

Utah State WR Wes Garnett went to the Wichita State hotel later that night.

“I knew a vast majority of those players from Wichita State and in fact, the day the crash happened, my girlfriend, who is now my wife, and I went down to the motel to see them,” Garnett said. “When we arrived at the Baugh Motel, there were players on the balcony out front crying. Me not knowing what had occurred, I’m making a joke, ‘You guys are crying because we’re going to kick your ass tomorrow,’ only to find out that there had been this plane crash.

“I was devastated.”

Utah State players met with the Wichita State players on the morning they were to return home. Shockers player Kelly Cook remembers that experience.

“It was pretty early in the morning and we had to be in the hotel dining room, or whatever it was, and when I walked in the whole Utah State team was in there,” Cook said. “Those guys had to get up real early to be there, and I have always remembered that.”

The Aggies provided emotional support along with sack lunches to take them on the bus ride to Salt Lake City.

“Halfway between Salt Lake and Logan, the bus broke down,” Yeros said. “Luckily, they were able to radio another bus going the other direction and it turned around. We unloaded one bus and got on the other. They actually held the flight for us. The bus drove right out on the tarmac next to the plane, and we got on the plane.”

At 1:30 p.m., the time that the game was originally scheduled, the Aggies and Shockers held a memorial service at Romney Stadium.

“As you can imagine, after everything we had gone through up to that point, we were supposed to be playing a game that day,” said Adams, who got his private pilot’s license during his senior year at Utah State. “That probably resonates more than anything, all of us – their team and our team – should have been on the field playing. That’s probably what I thought about the most. It’s nothing that we can ever get back.”

Around 300 people attended the brief ceremony. A black and gold wreath was placed on the 50-yard line.

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