Forty-four years ago, a plane carrying the Wichita State football team crashed in Colorado. The plane hit the side of a mountain and 31 people were killed. One of the survivors of the crash recently completed a more than 500-mile bike ride to the crash site. It was a tribute to his former teammates. KMUW’s Abigail Wilson spoke with Rick Stephens before he began his bike ride and hiked to the crash site with him last weekend.
A six-day bike ride from Cessna Stadium in Wichita to Silver Plume, Colorado was just the beginning of Rick Stephens’ journey to honor those who lost their lives in the crash. Last Sunday, along with a dozen family members and friends, Stephens visited the roadside memorial along I-70 just before the Eisenhower Tunnel.
“This is just an effort, primarily, to help people remember that there were special people in the world that they will never get to meet, never to get see. They will never get to have grandkids or wives,” Stephens said as he stood by the memorial.
From the roadside memorial, we began a difficult hike to the crash site. The path to the wreckage, or lack thereof, offered little help to 66-year-old Stephens, who with walking stick in hand, was determined to complete the hike. He took a few breaks along the way.
"My right ankle is having some issues," he said. "I don’t have a lot of the strength pushing off on it but I’ll make it."
After about an hour of hiking, we made it to a large clearing. Much of the debris from the crash still remains at the site after nearly half a century: landing gear, buckles from suitcases, aluminum soda cans the players drank from during the flight. In an emotional act of reverence, the group marked the wreckage with small yellow flags printed with the names of those who were killed, announcing each person's name as the flag was placed in the ground. Flags for husbands and wives, best friends and roommates were placed together in small clusters among the debris.
A memorial service for those who lost their lives 44 years ago today will be held on the Wichita State campus at 9 a.m.
This story originally aired during Morning Edition on 10/02/14.