Kansas man makes pilgrimage to Continental Divide half century after Wichita State football plane crash
Editor’s note: The below article has been corrected to reflect Martin Harrison was Paul and Kelly Harrison’s cousin.
Rick Stephens noticed something was wrong when he saw more green trees than blue skies.
As he looked out through the window over the left wing of the Wichita State football team’s “Gold” Martin 4-0-4 plane on Oct. 2, 1970, Stephens was concerned enough to get up from his seat in the middle of the plane and walk toward the cockpit. The plane transporting 40 people, including 24 team players and personnel, climbed from a refuel stop at Stapleton Airport east to a scenic route over Loveland Pass. On the way to a road game in Logan, Utah, Stephens could tell the pilots were in a state of somewhat urgent concern as they approached the Continental Divide.
Stephens remembers one pilot pointed at a topographic map and asked the other, “can we make it over that mountain?” The other pilot replied, “No, we can’t.” The plane, weighted down by equipment, was headed straight toward a box canyon. The team’s other plane, which had opted for a route over the Continental Divide north through Wyoming, safely landed in Utah a short while later.
As Stephens turned to go back to the cabin and eyed his seat, the plane took a sharp bank. He fell to the floor as the plane clipped the treetops. The next thing Stephens remembers, he was spitting gravel, dirt and teeth from his mouth near Mount Trelease, to the northeast of Loveland Ski Area.
After realizing he couldn’t get up — he’d later learn due to a dislocated hip and double compound leg fracture — the senior offensive lineman psychologically digested the dire situation as the plane went up in flames. Luckily for him, three people working on the Eisenhower Tunnel had seen the plane crash, found him, and transported him down the mountain to a waiting ambulance, carrying him in coveralls.
Fifty years later, Stephens believes those men — along with his decision to get up and go to the cockpit moments before the crash — saved his life, as everyone seated around him died.
“I try not to focus my mind on the tragedy,” Stephens said Saturday. “But every year, around the end of September, you begin to consider the loss and the sadness and the suffering and the grief that so many felt because of the loss.”
Earlier this month, Stephens, now 72, made his fourth pilgrimage to the site of the worst day of his life. After biking the 500 miles over six days from Wichita, Kansas, to Castle Rock, Stephens and a group of family, friends and supporters hiked the 1,500 vertical feet over a mile-and-a-half to the relics from the wreckage. It was to honor the dead and to raise money for the Memorial ’70 Fund, a scholarship fund that benefits children and grandchildren of the crash’s victims.
On Oct. 10, 50 years after Stephens was in a Colorado hospital to heal his injuries, he wore a Wichita State T-shirt and blue jeans. He dug trekking poles into the Rocky Mountain dirt at his feet to return to the crash site for what might be the final time. He was aided by longtime friends Paul and Kelly Harrison. They helped Stephens at each of his sides, up the steep trail littered with downed trees. For the Harrisons, the trip meant the world as well, as they were close to many of the 31 people who died, namely their cousin Martin, who was the team’s equipment manager.
For Paul Harrison, now 70, it was the first time he’d been to the site. But he knew he had to join Stephens on what his friend told him could be his final trek to the site in his lifetime. Paul Harrison also felt compelled after Stephens did a similar memorial bike ride from Wichita to Winnipeg, Canada, a couple of years ago in honor of Paul’s youngest daughter, Bridget, after she died from an eating disorder and depression.
“Several times Rick was going I just really couldn’t bring myself to go up to the crash site,” Paul Harrison said. “But this time I said I had to go with him.”
Fifty years ago, Paul Harrison was working in a postal substation inside a Wichita drug store when he heard over the radio that one of the two airplanes transporting the football program to their road game at Utah State had crashed. He immediately thought of Stephens, someone he knew since he was a kid and described as “another brother.”
Since the accident, Stephens has become an avid cyclist because biking is one of the few physical activities he can routinely engage in with his artificial hip due to injuries suffered in the crash. Paul Harrison said this year’s bike journey from Kansas to Colorado was mostly quiet, partially due to the wind and partially to reflect on where they were headed.
When they arrived at the U.S. Forest Service gate off of Interstate 70 — one that leads to the road and then to the trail up to the site — Paul Harrison said Stephens powered through despite his inability to push off one of his feet due to an ankle fusion. Once the group approached the site, Paul Harrison said the feeling of apprehension and anxiety increased. As the sight of the crash’s landing gear, fuselage and wing — weaved within the forest reclaiming it — came into view, Paul Harrison felt the devastation and sadness overcome him. He finally saw the place where so many people died needlessly. The group placed small Wichita State-colored pennants, with the name of each victim, at the site.
Decades ago, after the crash, the National Transportation Safety Board said pilot error caused the accident. It’s a fact that is difficult for Stephens to swallow to this day. The bronze roadside plaque at mile marker 217 on Interstate 70 is a vivid reminder. The hike up to the twisted metal at the site is validation.
Stephens is as tough of a man as they come, Paul Harrison said. He’s the kind of man who would have fit in perfectly with “The Greatest Generation,” those who lived through the Great Depression and fought in World War II. Still, no matter his resolve, Stephens feels the pain. He knows people say “time heals all wounds.” But he’s not sure that’s true. He’s lived a full life since the accident, with decades spent giving back to the youth of Kansas as a teacher.
The life message Stephens has shared with so many of his students through the years is the same one he was vividly reminded of when he returned to the crash site two weeks ago.
“Life is worth living,” Stephens said, “but you have to make an effort to do that. It doesn’t just happen.”
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