The Crash

Forty years ago, a plane slammed into the Rocky Mountains and killed 31 people. The rescue squad sent to find survivors was comprised of 18 teenagers, Colorado boys with something to prove to themselves and to one another. What they’d discover would haunt them for the rest of their lives.

October 2010

Click. The front of the plane had burned hottest, and Burdick and Watson found the first skulls. The teenagers—wearing gloves, boots taped at the shins to keep the dust out, and bandanas and ripped-up T-shirts as makeshift masks—backed away so a photographer could take a photo of the remains.

Click. The two collected bones and put them in bags.

There were remains near the middle of the plane. Some looked mummified. Burdick and Watson stopped seeing them as humans. The intense smell of death permeated the site.

Click. The pair lifted one body out of a seat. It broke apart in their hands.

Click. There was another body at the back of the plane, face down, with an arm stuck above its head, as if it were reaching out, trying to escape the danger. Watson situated himself over the body and tried to figure out how to put it into the black bag. He turned the body over and pushed the arm down. The body belched trapped air in his face.

A few feet away, Greene said prayers as he ushered the bags down the mountain. He made sure the remains didn’t bounce on the way to the ambulances. Just because their souls had gone to heaven, Greene thought, didn’t mean that these hadn’t been people a day earlier.

Nine. That’s how many people survived the crash. There were 31 dead, including the head coach, the athletic director, the state representative and his wife, the boosters, the plane’s captain, the student equipment manager. Taylor. Reeves. Those two made it out after the crash, but their injuries were too severe. Reeves’ wife left the maternity ward so she could be with her husband, who eventually died. In all, 13 children were orphaned.

Not long after the accident, the investigations and finger-pointing began. No one wanted to be responsible for the tragedy. The plane’s owner told the NTSB he wasn’t running the show—the plane was chartered by the university and the school should have taken more precautions, should have had sole authority over the flight. The university disagreed, but the agreement didn’t spell out who was in charge of the flight. The man who’d made the agreement died on the plane.

Skipper lived. The first officer told the NTSB that the school was in charge. He testified that he was taking the shortest route to Logan, that the decision to change flight plans wasn’t part of a sightseeing trip. It didn’t matter anyway, he said, because his pilot was calling the shots. The dead captain had put that plane into the ground. An “act of God,” Skipper called the crash.

In the end, Skipper would be punished: He was forced to temporarily give up his pilot’s license, and Golden Eagle Aviation lost its air-taxi certificate. The pilot-leasing business went belly-up.

The team took a vote nine days after the crash and decided they’d play the next six games with freshmen and reserves. They called it the Second Season. And so, 22 days after they lost their head coach and 14 starters, the Shockers took the field at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Arkansas. The crowd rose to its feet, and the fans stomped and clapped and cheered for their opponents. Arkansas won the game 62–0.

The Shockers would play a few more games before another news story swept them from the front pages of even their own newspapers. On November 14, 1970, a plane carrying Marshall University’s football team went down in West Virginia and killed all 75 people aboard.