CLEAR CREEK COUNTY, Colo. (KDVR) — Every day, nearly 44,000 vehicles pass through the busy stretch of Interstate 70 just east of the Eisenhower Tunnel. Most of those drivers are oblivious to the fact that, just a few hundred feet above the highway, on the side of Mount Trelease, rests the wreckage of a Martin 404 aircraft, its broken fuselage rusting in the harsh Colorado outdoors for half a century.
“This right here is the landing gear,” said John Yeros, pointing to a swath of twisted metal. Yeros, a member of the 1970 Wichita State Football team, recently led an expedition of teammates, relatives and loved ones to the crash site to mark the 50th anniversary of the crash. FOX31’s Jeremy Hubbard, a Wichita State alum, was invited along to document the trip.
Yeros was a backup player on the football team. On Oct. 2, 1970, the team departed Wichita, Kansas for a game against Utah State in Logan, Utah. They were assigned to two different aircraft: the “gold” plane, for starting players, and the “black” plane for backup players. Both aircraft stopped at Denver’s Stapleton International Airport to refuel before crossing the Continental Divide.
This is where their fates diverged.
The pilot of the backup plane made the decision to fly north to Wyoming, where they could cross the mountains at a much lower altitude. But the cockpit crew of the “gold” plane decided to follow a path along present-day Interstate 70, in order to give the college football players a scenic view of the Colorado mountains.
“The plane didn’t have a service ceiling to make it over the mountains,” said John Straka, a backup player who was onboard the “black” plane.
As the plane approached the summit of Loveland Pass at nearly 12,000 feet above sea level, it became clear the overloaded aircraft was flying too low, trapped in a canyon, surrounding by high mountain ridges.”
“I don’t know why they did this. This 1,000 feet higher than the plane was certified to fly,” Straka said.
Just after 1 p.m. the plane began clipping trees. And then seconds later, impact. A total of 31 people on board died, only nine survived.
Shockingly, many of those onboard survived the initial crash, thrown from the wreckage on impact. But then the fuel exploded, engulfing the passenger cabin and trapping people inside.
Rick Stephens of Wichita, Kansas, is one of the starting players who made it out alive. The death of teammate John Taylor is the one that sticks with him the most. Taylor managed to survive the crash and make it off the mountain, but he succumbed to his severe injuries in a Texas hospital later that month.
“To have to spend the last three or four weeks of his life in agony and struggling, it’s hard to imagine that there’s anything fair about that,” Stephens told FOX31.
Stephens suffered a broken leg and other injuries in the plane crash. He has frequently visited Colorado to hike back to the crash site.
The Wichita State plane crash is often forgotten and overshadowed because of a similar accident that happened just 43 days later. A plane carrying the football team from Marshall University crashed on approach to an airport in Huntington, West Virginia on Nov. 14, killing 75 people. It was the worst sports team aviation disaster in U.S. history.
“They were hit very hard. They didn’t have anyone to start over with,” said Gary Curmode, a former Wichita State athlete who recently hiked back to the crash site.
For survivors, teammates, friends and family, the wreckage site on the side of Colorado’s Mount Trelease is hallowed ground. On nearly every visit, hikers leave pictures, rosary beads or notes to remember those killed.
“It’s always the same, but it’s always different because someone has been here and put something you didn’t know was here,” said Yeros.
Watch the FOX31 news special “Overshadowed: The Wichita State Football Plane Crash” below.