Wow, 25 years ago today. This is my hometown and even though I was only 9 years old in 1977, I remember it like yesterday......
A night of tears for UE
Aces basketball program wiped out in tragic plane crash
By RICH DAVIS Courier & Press staff writer 464-7516 or firstname.lastname@example.org
December 13, 2002
Dec. 13, 1977, was a misty, foggy Tuesday evening and the field Gene Hollencamp was trudging through was a muddy quagmire. A hundred yards or so ahead he could see small fires and chunks of an aircraft glowing in the darkness, a surreal setting.
"As we got closer, my first impression was it looked like there were a lot of tombstones scattered around," the Evansville resident, now a 53-year-old Thornton's service station manager, recalls. "Then I realized they were seats with many of the passengers still strapped in them. Most of the injuries were from blunt trauma. I think they died quickly."
A former medic in Vietnam, Hollencamp began searching for anyone still alive. "I found one, a kid (Michael Joyner) from Terre Haute, and I put my gray bomber jacket over him. (He died later.)
"It still didn't dawn on me who it was until I saw a University of Evansville flight bag and I thought, 'Oh, my God, this is the Aces.'"
Just about everyone else was dead, although the plane's female flight attendant lived briefly and another player, freshman Greg Smith from West Frankfort, Ill., died five hours later, about the time his parents completed a long drive through fog and reached Deaconess Hospital.
Minutes before the plane went down at 7:22 p.m., less than 90 seconds after takeoff, Hollencamp and his boss, Pat Alvey, had stood outside the Patrick Aviation hangar on the south end of the old Evansville airport and watched a twin-engine DC-3 carrying 29 people lift off.
"It kind of bounced up and as soon as it got some altitude, it banked sharply to the left," Hollencamp recalls. "It disappeared (into some low clouds) but you could hear it. All of a sudden we saw the flash."
Alvey knew the territory, in a hard-to-reach area east of the main runway near Melody Hills subdivision, and they drove into Melody Hills, parking at a dead-end road and beginning to walk.
They were among the first on the scene of a catastrophe that in one terrible moment wiped out Evansville's basketball team - 14 players, head coach Bobby Watson, the trainer, two team managers, the school's sports information director, longtime radio sportscaster Marv Bates, the comptroller, the assistant athletic director, two fans, three crew members and two airline officials.
As the horror of what happened on a ridge overlooking a ravine and railroad tracks took hold, the community was devastated. The Purple Aces enjoyed unrivaled stature in a town where standing-room-only crowds had rooted the former Division II powerhouse to five small-college championships under legendary coach Arad McCutchan.
Hundreds of students were drawn to UE's Neu Chapel; on Sunday 4,000 people turned out for a community memorial service at the stadium.
Ironically, the young Aces (eight freshmen on the 14-man roster) were in their first season of Division I basketball after McCutchan's retirement and the hiring of the big, likable Watson from Oral Roberts. They were 1-3, beating Pitt and losing the weekend before to highly ranked Indiana State and Larry Bird. They were bound for a game the next night against Middle Tennessee State. In the past, they probably would have gone by bus, but they were Division I now and had booked National Jet Service, a charter that carried other Indiana teams.
Craig Bohnert, 44, remembers that night, too.
He was a sophomore at Purdue University and had spoken to his mom, Delores, back in Evansville that afternoon about his brother, Jeff, a team manager, just 14 months older than him. "None of us had flown before. I said, 'That lucky dog!' But Mom said Jeff wasn't too excited because they were taking a DC-3. He'd told her, 'Mom, you've got to walk uphill to get to your seat in those planes.'"
Fog played havoc with air travel that afternoon, and the flight was several hours late from Indianapolis. In August 1978, the National Transportation Safety Board issued a 50-page report indicating the crew hurried, improperly loading baggage that made the plane tail-heavy, and that the co-pilot failed to remove some of the gust locks, or sleeves, placed over flaps and rudders.
"The pilot (Ty Van Pham, a Vietnamese refugee) was highly experienced. He had flown the Vietnamese president at one time," says Bohnert, whose parents attended crash hearings. Bohnert said the pilot did all he could to get the plane turned back to the airport by manipulating the engine power.
"The thing that sticks in my mind is if he had cleared a final ridge, he would have had a clear path back to a secondary runway," says Bohnert, now living in a Kansas City, Kan., suburb where he's an executive with the National Soccer Coaches Association of America. "A wing struck the ground, sheered off and came back to cut open the fuselage like a tin can."
Bohnert, who grew up listening to Bates call Aces games, had just watched a Purdue game on TV when a dormmate came down the hall and said there was a news flash that a plane carrying either the Evansville or Valparaiso basketball teams had crashed.
Bohnert finally got hold of his dad, Donald, who didn't have too many details. Bohnert asked a friend to drive him to Evansville. "When my dad found out I was on the road, he contacted the state police, who pulled us over. My dad said he didn't want to take the chance of losing another son the same night."
The next morning, his dad's boss and a family friend brought Bohnert home: "As we drove into town the impact on the community struck home. Flags were at half-staff ... my mom was at the door and we ran and embraced."
At Jeff's wake, the UE football coach, John Moses, talked to Bohnert and said he could have Jeff's scholarship package. "I was thinking of transferring anyway," says Bohnert who became a team manager and even used the same 16mm camera his brother had used to film the team. It was recovered from the crash site.
However, Bohnert notes his father was "a changed man" and died of a stroke only three years later, at age 50. His father was unhappy the university opted for a fountain rather than the eternal flame some families wanted for the memorial, built behind the UE administration building.
Jim Byers, UE's football coach before becoming athletic director in spring 1977, would have been on the plane if a prospective baseball coach hadn't been coming to town that afternoon for an interview.
Byers was among the UE officials identifying victims all night. A train, brought in along tracks in a ravine downhill from the crash site, had carried the bodies Downtown to a makeshift morgue at the Community Center.
"The police wouldn't let us notify people (families) until we had identification. It was frustrating," he says, noting many families were hearing news of the crash on TV. "From a personal standpoint, it was devastating. I knew everybody on that plane. We didn't go to bed. As soon as we could, we made contact (with families) and university officials were assigned to be with different families," attending funerals.
Byers lived in Melody Hills and his wife, not realizing it was the UE team, heard the aircraft as she stood at the kitchen window. The plane's tail struck the tops of two trees in the subdivision.
Former UE president Wallace Graves, who along with his wife attended 16 of the funerals, says Dec. 13 "is one of those tragedies that never leaves people's minds." He sees some parallels between Dec. 13 and Sept. 11. "After the initial shock, everybody is supportive, then as they try to deal with the agony of the loss of a family member some are so hurt they are sometimes a bit critical."
Six of the players' families later questioned the use of more than $330,000 in donations, saying more of it should have gone into scholarships than into the $134,000 memorial plaza, but they did win a public accounting of how the money was used.
Graves says a memorial review committee decided an eternal flame would be too "funereal," not appropriate on a college campus where every four years a new generation of students comes along.
Although there will be a brief noon service today at the campus memorial, UE officials point out they annually award scholarships and have a moment of silence, usually at the first home basketball game.
Now 81 and in frail health, Bates' widow, Edie, still attends Aces games.
There were those who feared the crash would kill her; she had a serious heart condition that would make her the country's oldest heart transplant patient, at age 65, in 1987.
She learned about the tragedy when a United Press International reporter named Gilley called from Indianapolis, trying to reach Bates. "Marv was on that plane," she told him amid awkward silence. "Finally, I said, 'Obviously, Gilley, I'm involved. I'll get back to you.' And I did, three times. I felt so sorry for him being the one to tell me."