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Air crash wiped out Evansville’s team in ‘77
Rick Notter, a Metro Beechcraft employee at Dress Regional Airport in Evansville, Ind., was one of the few witnesses who saw it happen.
"I watched the plane taxi off runway 1-8 in the rain and fog," Notter told the Evansville Courier. "When the pilot got into the air, he made a sharp turn left. The plane went up into the fog and then came down to the ground. I heard a thud and saw the flames -- it burst into flames immediately."
Gene Hollencamp was among those who rushed to the wreckage of the twin-engine DC-3. "As we got closer, my first impression was it looked like there were a lot of tombstones scattered around," he said. "Then I realized they were seats with many of the passengers still strapped in them."
Another reality struck Hollencamp when he spotted a University of Evansville flight bag.
"Oh my God!" he thought. "These are the Aces ..."
On the fateful day of Dec.13, 1977, the entire 14-man Evansville basketball team was wiped out. Also among the 29 victims were coach Bobby Watson, his assistants, other athletic department personnel, sportscaster Marv Bates, two fans and three crew members. No one survived.
The fatal flight had lasted five minutes after taking off about 7:15p.m. following two delays caused by weather conditions. The plane went down at the eastern edge of the airport overlooking railroad tracks, and two small explosions followed. Bodies were strewn on and around the tracks. Three players survived the impact, but two died minutes later and freshman Greg Smith at a hospital early the next morning.
"You couldn't see much except for the bodies near the track," recalled Patrick Wathen, a Courier reporter. "It was eerie. I remember seeing the glow of a flare and hearing a train whistle -- the most forlorn sound I ever heard in my life."
Another Courier reporter, sportswriter Tom Collins, must have felt like the luckiest person on earth. He had been scheduled to take the flight before his sports editor asked him to remain in the office that night to help with high school basketball coverage.
The flight was scheduled to Nashville, Tenn., where Evansville's Purple Aces were to spend the night before busing to Murfreesboro for a game against Middle Tennessee State. In earlier years, the team probably would have made the whole trip by bus. But this was the school's first season of Division I competition, and chartering a plane seemed more in keeping with its upgraded status.
More than a quarter-century later, the school observes the tragedy each December with a moment of silence before a game. Basketball coach Steve Merfeld discusses it openly if a prospective recruit brings up the subject.
"A lot of times, they aren't aware of what happened, but their families are," Merfeld said. "And with the popularity of sports, many people are aware of those kinds of tragedies. They are not forgotten."
Professional sports teams did not fly regularly until most leagues expanded to the West Coast in the 1950s and '60s. Many college teams still bus to closer road games. Yet the list of athletes and officials who have died in air crashes grows alarmingly:
Oklahoma State basketball players Nate Fleming and Dan Lawson, plus assorted university staffers, in 2001. ... Golfer Payne Stewart. ... San Diego Chargers running back Rodney Culver. ... Nebraska quarterback Brook Berringer. ... NASCAR drivers Davey Allison and Alan Kulwicki. ... Eighteen members of the Zambian men's national soccer team and 17 from the Alianza Peruvian team. ... Baseball stars Thurman Munson, Roberto Clemente and Ken Hubbs. ... The Marshall University football team in 1970. ... And further back: Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne and former middleweight champion Marcel Cerdan, among others.
All professional leagues have contingency plans to restock teams decimated by disaster. Perhaps such a tragedy will never happen ... but you have to dread the possibility.
"Travel is a fact of athletic life," sports editor Justin Sokeland wrote in the Bloomington (Ind.) Times-Mail. "My colleagues and I can tell our own stories of precarious flights through snowstorms and tornadoes, and our relief upon landing."
Evansville reacted to the plane crash admirably, putting it behind -- though not out of mind -- and moving forward. What else can anyone do?
Now a city of 296,000 in southern Indiana along the banks of the Ohio River, Evansville long has taken pride in the university's basketball team. Under legendary coach Arad McCutchan, who retired after the 1976-77 season and was succeeded by Watson, the Purple Aces won five NCAA Division II championships before moving up to Division I for the 1977-78 campaign -- a season ultimately reduced to four games. In the days following the plane crash, hundreds of students visited the university chapel and 4,000 people attended a memorial service.
But life must go on, and so Evansville set about it by hiring Dick Walters, a highly successful junior college coach. To help the rebuilding job, the NCAA waived its rule that transferring athletes must sit out a year.
"I think the university felt the situation called for a junior college coach who could get JUCO players that could help immediately," Walters recalled. "There was still a strong session of depression [on campus], but people did a good job of getting over it. And everybody was willing to help."
Evansville's media guide for the 1978-79 season did not mention the tragedy, only that the program was "starting from scratch." In two months, Walters brought in 16 players, a mixture of JUCO recruits, transfers and freshmen. Startlingly, Evansville finished 13-16 his first season and 18-10 his second. Two years after that, the Purple Aces went 23-6 and earned a bid to the NCAA tournament.
"The national media kept wanting to talk about the tragedy, and I wanted to talk about the future," Walters said. "My job was to get people thinking about what was ahead."
To some extent, he succeeded. But today, on the 27th anniversary of the plane crash, a lot of folks in Evansville will be remembering an evening when the unthinkable happened.
By Donald Lambro
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