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Team Spirits

"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."

Rick Brazill offers another assessment. "It's hard to imagine somebody surviving something like this," he surmises. "If you were a survivor on that plane, that would be a hell of a burden to carry around with you all your life."

Moments before impact, Glenn Kostal was seated three rows from the rear of the aircraft, enjoying a box lunch and chatting with teammate Johnny Taylor. "As we were getting closer," says Kostal, speaking by phone from his home in Wisconsin. "I remember Johnny saying something to the effect of, 'If I had a rifle, I could hit rabbits down there.' The first sense that there was any danger was a very violent turn to the right, when the pilot was trying to do a U-ee to get out of the canyon. Then there was a violent turn to the left, and a tremendous drop, like if you were in an elevator and somebody cut the cord. The stewardess, she was lifted up to the front of the plane, airborne. The next thing I knew, we were clipping trees and on the ground."

Following the impact, Kostal found himself buried up to his neck in debris, gazing through thick black smoke. As he and Taylor struggled to extricate themselves, a pair of players behind them warned them of fire in the back of the fuselage. They climbed onto a tree bridging a split in the plane's hold and hurried out.

"About all I could see were the shadows of the other guys moving toward the trees," Kostal recounts. "And as soon as I got out and hit the ground, we could see the fireball moving through the plane toward the front. Unfortunately, Johnny Taylor had been standing in a stream of fuel when the fireball hit, and that's how he got burned. He had the presence of mind to put himself out, but his burns were too severe."

Taylor made his way down the hill, only to die from his injuries three weeks later. Nine other passengers lived; Kostal attributes his survival to his seat at the back of the plane, which spared him and a few of his teammates from the crush of seats and bodies that took place in the front of the plane. And the fact that they were "young and crazy and used to playing with pain.

"Everybody had broken feet and legs and blood and everything, and we just ignored it and got out," he says.

A twenty-year-old linebacker at the time, Kostal would never play another down of football after recovering from his injuries. "For me, it was always the people you played with," he says. "You become closer when you lose than when you win. And we lost a lot. The guys on that plane were close, and not just as roommates or people that you lived with, or fraternity brothers or sorority sisters. These were people that you played with, you cried with, and they were people you could depend on. We took the heat every Sunday after we got our butts kicked on Saturday, and then we had to go to school and deal with the loss and start up all over again on Monday and Tuesday. And by Wednesday you thought, God, you were gonna kick the daylights out of the people next week, even though it was Florida State or Texas A&M."

Since 1971, WSU has held a memorial ceremony on the school campus, an event Kostal avoided until a few years ago, when he attended after some encouragement from Jim Rhatigan. Since then, he has returned for the 25th anniversary service. Kostal says surviving the accident made him a better father and a more ambitious person, but, he says, "I wish to hell I could have more fun. And I wish I could have more friends. I think a big part of what I learned in this is that you've got to be careful how many people you get close to, because there are no guarantees. And that's kind of sad." But then he laughs. "If I win the lotto tomorrow, I guarantee I'll have more fun--but I already won that in 1970, on October 2, when I got out of that plane."

"We tried to be helpful to our remaining players," say Jim Rhatigan, reflecting on how WSU handled the crisis years ago, "but in later years, I discovered that we were not. We did a lot of good things for them, but we were not able to penetrate their grief, because we failed to recognize the highly masculine feature of being a football player. They had that brave face and were doing fine--you know, 'No problem, we're hanging in there.' Well, they really were not."

This strong exterior may have contributed to the decision by the surviving players to have the Shockers' freshman squad play out the remainder of that year's varsity schedule. Two weeks after the crash, WSU resumed play, with the freshman team taking on the University of Arkansas in a game in Arkansas. While Rhatigan may have questioned the decision at the time, he concedes it provided one of the few bright moments in a dark period for his school.

Arkansas won 60-0. But, Rhatigan says, "those people in Arkansas, they were magnificent people. When we showed up," he says, his voice cracking with emotion, "they cheered. When we'd make a first down," he continues, before pausing again to collect himself, "they would cheer...If you were not affected by it, you had to be made of stone. I've been kind of a fan of the Razorbacks ever since.

"Lives were changed forever because of this thing," Rhatigan says. "A lot of our colleagues died in the crash, and their widows are still here, and I still keep up with them and some of the kids. The Katzenmeyers, they were both killed; they left two daughters. The Kings both died, and they had five children. This was a very bad thing. But no one thinks about this at all here now, except for the people that were affected by it."

"The summer of 1971 was the best summer of my life," Curmode says, while walking back down from the crash area. "At night, Steve and I, we'd go out to the football fields in Silver Plume and Idaho Springs and play ball to keep in shape and drop weight. We loved it up here, and I remember telling him, 'Oh, yeah, we'll be back next summer, and you'll probably honeymoon up here when you marry my next-door neighbor.' Then the crash happened, and that conversation comes right back to me. Even though it's been 28 years, it's just like it was yesterday to me. Coming here is a way for me to pay my respects, and it brings it all back and helps me to deal with it. I mean, I don't have any problems--I've settled with it. I'm doing this because WSU meant a lot to me, and I think Steve would do it for me. I think I owe it to these guys, and I don't want them to be forgotten.