WSU airplane crash survivor is biking to Colorado memorial

Story Photo

Rick Stephens, a WSU graduate and survivor of the plane crash that claimed 31 victims in 1970, bikes on K96 Highway west of Scott City.

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Rick Stephens, a WSU graduate and survivor of the plane crash that claimed 31 victims in 1970, bikes on K96 Highway west of Scott City.

By Rod Haxton, editor
There’s a physical toll that comes from biking for long stretches on the open road.
But, perhaps the most difficult part can be the mental toll.
Biking provides Rick Stephens a lot of time to think. When making the 550 mile trek from his home in Wichita to the Rocky Mountains above Denver, it gives him ample opportunity to reflect on an airplane crash nearly 44 years ago that claimed 31 lives.
Stephens was one of only eight survivors.
Fourteen of those killed in the crash on Oct. 2, 1970, were his Wichita State University football teammates.
Stephens, who left Wichita on Saturday morning, plans to arrive at the memorial site near Denver on Sunday.
“I always feel humbled that, for some purpose, I was spared. It’s a time for me to pause and reflect,” says the 66-year-old. “But I also hope that it gives others who know about the crash or possibly knew people who were killed a chance to stop for a few moments and reflect on that terrible day 44 years ago.”
At the time of the disaster, Stephens was a 22-year-old senior tackle for the Shockers.
After refueling in Denver, two WSU aircraft departed for the game to be played at Utah State. One plane took a northern route while the pilot of the plane carrying Stephens decided to change the flight plan and take a more scenic route. The plane was overloaded, however, and when it flew into a box canyon the crash was imminent.
“It wasn’t unusual for the players to walk up to the cockpit and visit with the pilots,” says Stephens.
That’s what he had done only to become aware that something was wrong. He saw the pilots were looking at a topographical map and “I could tell there was tension . . . a sense of urgency.”
He recalls that one of the pilots commented, “It’s 14 (thousand feet). We can’t make that one either.”
Looking through the window of the cockpit, Stephens said he could see only green from the forests and no sky.
“That’s when I turned around. I knew there was impending disaster, but I had no idea how serious it would be,” he notes. “I went back to the cabin area and at that time they banked the airplane and I fell to the floor.
“The last thing I remember is the wings clipping trees . . . a very sudden and sharp impact.”
Thrown from Plane
It was at that same time construction of the Eisenhour tunnel was taking place and a crew was on a road over Mount Trelease. Vic Bell was one of three construction workers who saw the crash and were the first ones to arrive at the scene.
“They saw the one pilot who had died at the scene. They found me about 20 yards beyond him and they thought the worst until they saw me move,” says Stephens.
One of the workers removed a pair of bib coveralls he was wearing and they used that to help carry Stephens farther from the crash site. Because of the difficult terrain, they were only able to get about 75 yards before they had to pause for a break.
“I can remember the plane at that point was smoking badly and then there was the explosion,” Stephens says.
Leaving Friends Behind
The most troubling part, says Stephens, is that if not for the explosion well after the crash more people would have survived. Some were trapped inside and unable to escape.
“The kids . . . ,” Stephens starts to say before starting to break down. “ . . . the kids who were able to get out did get out, but they had to leave their teammates behind who were alive.
“I remember Randy Jackson telling me that he stopped to help Jack Vetter. Jack said, ‘Get out. You can’t help me,” said Stephens as he choked back the tears. “The individuals who had to leave, knowing full well what was going to happen, have had to carry the burden.
“To walk away when so many others didn’t causes me to think about what can be done to keep the memory of those friends and teammates alive,” he says. “There’s no paying back for something like that, but if I can put that memory out there, even for a little while, it’s part of the history of Wichita State and the city.”
Long distance biking isn’t new to Stephens who has also made three trips to Manitoba, Winnipeg. However, the trek to Colorado is more difficult.
“I was quite optimistic three years ago when I did this for the first time,” he says.
Stephens got as far as Idaho Springs, 35 miles short of his destination, before calling it quits.
“This year I’m going as far as I can. If I don’t make it, then at least I gave it a shot,” he says.
Plans are to arrive at the roadside memorial that marks the crash site on I70 West, about eight miles west of Silver Plume and two miles east of the Eisenhower Tunnel. From there it’s a short distance to the trail head and about a half mile climb to the crash site.
His daughter, Sarah Selmon, who accompanied him for part of the journey, will rejoin him on Sunday along with other family and friends.
Selmon is a WSU graduate, having received a Memorial 70 Scholarship from the university which was established to help the children, grandchildren and relatives of crash victims to attend WSU.
“Hopefully, we can raise some money and keep this scholarship going for many more years,” says Stephens.
Selmon has also made pennant flags with the names of boosters, supporters, teammates and crew members who died in the crash. They will be planted around the memorial.
“I was fortunate enough to survive,” adds Stephens. “I want to do my part to make sure those who didn’t survive are not forgotten.”

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