Team Spirits

Nearly thirty years later, the site of a Loveland Pass plane crash is unchanged. But the athletes who walked away were never the same.

"As time passes, memories fade, but we will never forget."
--Inscription from the WSU crash memorial at Loveland Pass

On October 2, 1970, highway construction crews working above Georgetown looked up to see a puzzling site. A Martin 404 twin-engine plane was traveling low through the canyon, straining for the open skies overhead. Down below, Leroy Buckley stood outside his service station at Seventh and Rose streets and took in the same scenario, wondering aloud whether the plane would clear Loveland Pass just west of town.

Moments later the craft--one of two charter planes carrying the players, staff and supporters of the Wichita State University football team--slammed into the trees just north of the Eisenhower Tunnel, killing 31 people. Among the dead were fourteen members of the Shockers team, their head coach and his wife, and the school's athletic director and spouse. The casualty list also included a pair of supporters who had won seats on the flight in a fundraising contest and one player who had transferred from the team's second plane at a refueling stop in Denver just minutes before.

Today, a quarter of a mile from the east entrance to the tunnel, a steel cross and a bronze gravestone serve as reminders of the lives claimed a few hundred yards above I-70. Thousands of motorists whiz by this silent sentinel, but few know of the event it commemorates. Gary Curmode certainly does. For the past 28 years, Curmode, a former member of the WSU basketball team and now a fire chief in Sedgwick County, Kansas, has made an annual journey to the mountains of Colorado to honor the friends he lost nearly three decades ago.

"I come by this every year," says Curmode, his silhouette shadowing the names embossed into the ghostly registry before him, "and I hike up to the site every two years. I sit there and ponder, and wonder 'what if' and where they would be today if this hadn't happened. And I wonder where the years have gone." A yellow WSU visor wraps around the base of the memorial's headstone cross, flanked by several plastic bouquets and various mementos left behind by recent visitors. Beneath a faded bundle of flowers is a "Jesus First" pin and a Shocker Athletic Scholarship Organization 1998 membership card, placed there by a nephew of one of the crash victims. "Being here is like Memorial Day for me," says Curmode, a muscular 47-year-old.

"I look at the names and reflect on the friendships we had, and the football players coming down the mountain, burned, and the bulldozer that made a way up to the site, and it brings all of that back. And I think of the football players that worked with me up at the Eisenhower Tunnel that summer."

According to WSU officials and the National Transportation Safety Board, it's this last detail that played a major role in the accident. After refueling in Denver, the pilot changed his flight plan, opting for a westerly "scenic route" over the Rocky Mountains due west of Denver. The original flight plan had called for a northerly path, which the second WSU plane traveled safely to its Logan, Utah, destination.

"When we pieced all of this together, we found out some things. One of our players had worked up at Loveland Pass and wanted to know if the pilot could fly up there on the way over the mountains. He said fine, but when he got up there, he realized he was in a box canyon and couldn't get out," says WSU vice president Jim Rhatigan, who was vice president of student affairs at the time of the crash. Curmode thinks the flight-plan change was prompted by a request from one of his summer co-workers, starting linebacker Steve Moore, who was also flying on the plane.

"Steve and I worked together up here," Curmode says. "He's the one who asked the pilot, 'Can we go a different route so I can show the guys where I work?' I just know it. And the pilot, not being familiar with it, he looked at the map and said, 'Yeah, we can do it.' There's no other reason that the plane would have taken this route."

Nearly thirty years later, the crash site remains much as it did in 1970. When Curmode and a pair of fellow fire fighters take the 45-minute hike up to the location, the scene they come upon is a jarring one. A once-wooded area the size of a football field has been transformed into a junkyard, littered with toppled trees, charred wood and torn metal. Large slabs of the silver metal are strewn about the area, along with broken sections of landing gear and mangled pieces of the shattered plane. Strange globs of hardened molten metal fill the spaces among them, evidence of the intense fire that engulfed the craft after impact. At the far end of the clearing, a swath of lush pines grows short and squat, their tops lopped off by the plane's final approach.

The ground is sprinkled with a confetti of tiny metal tidbits, bolts, wires, rivets and hardware, while some of the larger hunks of debris appear as though they were pounded into the land. Much of the refuse remains charred and black, while young trees and weeds rise out of the eerie chaos. As Curmode takes a seat on a fallen tree and quietly surveys the sobering setting, one of his friends, Bob Conger, says, "If you were looking for a beautiful place to lose your life, this would be it."

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