Three generations later, the secrets of Wichita State’s devastating plane crash are still unfolding


ON THE MORNING of Oct. 2, 1970, 21-year-old Malory W. Kimmel drove away from Wichita State University’s Jardine Hall, heading for the Field House nearby. Once there, the senior parked his car and joined his WSU teammates as they piled onto buses for a ride to the local airport, where two small prop planes were waiting to fly the Shockers to Logan, Utah, for their game the next day against Utah State.

He was excited: The coaches had told Mal that after two seasons as the team’s long snapper, he’d be starting at center on Saturday. And there was another reason. As he boarded the Gold Plane for the first time with the rest of the starting 22, Mal had a secret: His wife, Diane, was pregnant with the couple’s first child. They hadn’t even told their parents yet.

From the moment he found out that he was going to be a father, Mal was like a man on fire with Diane — staying up late, coming up with names, trying to figure out money, school, all of it. Mal was certain what he wanted them to do after graduation: return to their hometown of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, to the rural life he’d known before Wichita State. His family owned a bar in town called Palomino; maybe he could work there? “Let me finish puking,” Diane would say, “and then we’ll talk about that stuff.”

The two Martin 404s flying the Shockers to Utah left Wichita at 9:08 a.m.; the planes landed in Denver to refuel a little after 11, and around 12:30 p.m., each took off, engines emitting the throaty roar that had made the 404 popular with pilots in its aviation heyday. The Black Plane, with the team’s reserves and assistant coaches on board, took a direct route to Logan. The Gold Plane’s first officer, Ronald Skipper, had a different idea.

Skipper was also president of Golden Eagle Aviation, and during the layover in Denver, he had decided to entertain his passengers — boosters and college administrators, along with the starters, team trainers and the head coach — by providing an in-flight tour of the Rockies and the Continental Divide; they’d be taking the “scenic route,” he said. Climbing into the cockpit alongside Capt. Danny Crocker just 15 minutes before takeoff, Skipper had topographical maps he’d purchased moments earlier at a shop in Stapleton Airport so that he could point out landmarks of interest along the way.

Mal Kimmel wouldn’t see any of that. He didn’t like flying much and was in the habit of picking up a little something at the airport — Dramamine, if they had it — and dozing through flights. Meanwhile, from his window seat near Mal, offensive tackle Rick Stephens was checking out the scenery below, the mining camps just off I-70 gleaming in the bright sunshine of a perfect fall day. With the Continental Divide up ahead, the camps’ metal equipment was so visible that Stephens began to wonder. Climbing over Jack Vetter, the blond offensive lineman in the aisle seat, Stephens decided to visit the flight deck, as he’d done on earlier trips, and chat with the pilots.

“I went into the cockpit area,” Stephens says. “And they were … they were frantic.”

They had flown the overloaded plane straight into a box canyon, hemmed in on both sides and unable to turn around. Stephens could see the topographical maps spread out, Crocker and Skipper “looking over things that you would expect them to have been familiar with before they ever took off,” he says. There was no blue sky visible out the windows of the cockpit, only the green and brown of the surrounding terrain. Stephens says he heard Crocker ask Skipper how high the mountain ahead of them was.

The answer: “14,000 [feet]. We can’t make it.”

Moments later, Stephens was facing the back of the cabin, trying to return to his seat, when the plane banked sharply to the right and then to the left. A flight attendant spilled the refreshments she was carrying. “I felt the wings clipping the trees,” Stephens says, and the aircraft began to vibrate, like “a boat slapping water.”

Just before the plane smashed into the mountainside at more than 110 mph, before he was flung to the cabin floor and lost consciousness, Rick Stephens glanced where he had been sitting and saw Mal Kimmel, eyes closed, asleep.

IT’S BEEN CALLED college football’s forgotten tragedy. Why? Because it took place 50 years ago. Because Wichita State ended its football program in 1986. Because just six weeks later, a Southern Airways DC-9 carrying Marshall University’s football team never made it to the runway during its final descent, killing all 75 passengers and crew on board and forming the basis for the 2006 feature film “We Are Marshall,” starring Matthew McConaughey. Maybe that’s why so many haven’t heard about what happened to the Wichita State University Gold Plane, which crashed into Mount Trelease 10,750 feet above sea level and burned, claiming the lives of 31 of its 40 passengers and crew. Fourteen of those killed were starters on the WSU football team, and the horror was front-page news across the nation. “Mom, I’m alive — it’s a miracle,” one player would say into a pay phone. “My buddies are all dead.”

Five months pregnant, phoning Mal’s anguished parents whenever there was news, Diane would wait all that Friday night through “absolute chaos” at the Field House for word on possible survivors. Maybe he’s just stunned and they haven’t found him yet, she thought. Maybe he’s hurt and they gotta keep looking. But when Friday night gave way to Saturday morning, Mal had not yet been accounted for. “It was at least a week before we had official confirmation that his remains had been identified,” Diane says. “You’re still holding out hope through all that. I mean, you know better, but you don’t.”

Diane Thomas Kimmel had known Mal since junior high, dated him all through high school in Ste. Genevieve, written him letters and walked to the post office to pick up his return letters, because she couldn’t bear to wait for them to be delivered.

“[They] were about football practice, pretty much,” she says. “How many laps did they have to run? How much practice time did he get?” Mal wrote Diane that he was frustrated with his progress: “Way too slow, way too slow to move up on the totem pole: That was a big adjustment, when he had always been one of the top players. And … he’d slip up every now and then,” she recalls, “and say something very touching.”

She had visited him at WSU on weekends, driving through the night with his parents, before enrolling there herself one year later, immersing herself in a social world that revolved around football. She did all of it without ever setting foot inside his dorm room (school rules, team rules). After they married in the summer of 1970, when their dog, Joe Black, ate the wedding cake moments before the reception, at last “he could move out of the dorm and we could live together,” she says. “Our lives were so intertwined.”

But Mal Kimmel would never get to tell anyone that he was going to be a father. And Diane was a 20-year-old widow, a college junior with a baby on the way, alone, with big decisions to make. Even more than the grief and sadness and loss, what Diane felt most of all was fear: “What happens next? How do you get through this?

For the football team, the human toll was monumental. Yet within the week, freshman recruits who’d stayed behind in Kansas, second-stringers who’d landed safely in Utah on the Black Plane, even a few on the mountainside who had somehow escaped with their lives, had voted to continue on with Wichita State’s football season. The Second Season, they called it. It became a rallying cry.

As they reassembled for practice days after attending their teammates’ funerals, players were without uniforms and equipment that had been destroyed in the crash. Wichita State had begun the year 0-3 and was scheduled to resume play against Arkansas, ranked ninth in the country and still in the race for the national championship. Even as the players in Wichita reviewed their scouting reports on the Razorbacks, the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the crash was being held within walking distance of Cessna Stadium. Rick Stephens would be brought to testify at the hearing on his hospital bed.

On the night of Oct. 24, some 40,000 filled War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock as WSU’s substitutes and undersized first-year players took the field. “Our fans gave ’em a standing ovation,” recalls Chuck Dicus, an All-American receiver and game captain that night for the Razorbacks. “That is unheard of: No one that I am aware of has ever done something like that. Even today, kind of makes the hair stand up on my back.”

The final score would be 62-0, but the game’s defining moment would come during the coin toss: “When I looked across the field,” Dicus says, “I seemed to focus in on one player that was not suited up but was on crutches.” It was WSU co-captain John Hoheisel, who’d been injured in the crash, slowly making his way to the middle of the field — an image of Wichita grit in the aftermath of tragedy that ran in sports sections coast to coast.

The same spirit has brought members of WSU’s 1970 team and loved ones to pay their respects at the casket-shaped memorial just off I-70 outside Silver Plume, Colorado, where the names of Malory W. Kimmel and the 30 others who perished are inscribed on a plaque. From there, it’s a short hike up the mountainside to where the plane went down, and even a half-century later, that site remains strewn with wreckage from the aircraft and dotted with white handcrafted memorials placed there by grieving family members. “It is a haunting experience to go up there,” Stephens says. “But it’s also … cathartic.”

Stephens would never know how he had escaped and survived. Minutes after the crash, with a compound fracture of his leg, he regained consciousness outside the burned airplane, roused by a rescuer who’d been working on the Eisenhower Tunnel less than 2 miles away. His trip to the cockpit had saved his life.

As the NTSB report would explain, the impact had detached the aircraft’s seats from the cabin floor. They piled up in the front, trapping the seat-belted passengers as fire began to engulf the downed plane. Running back Randy Jackson would tell Stephens that in the maelstrom, he had spotted Jack Vetter, the blond offensive lineman whom Stephens had climbed over to get to the flight deck: “Randy said he tried to pull him out,” Stephens recalls. “And Jack said, ‘You can’t help me.'”

Just like Mal Kimmel, Jack Vetter was 21 years old. He loved his horse, Star. He had held his high school’s shot put record. And he’d be laid to rest in McPherson, Kansas, where his headstone reads: TO HIM DEATH CAME NO CONQUEROR.

“Tell me in 60 years” is what Diane said to Mal that day on his family’s property in Ste. Genevieve, when he said he needed to show her where he wanted to be buried — in the shade of some pines that dotted an open field. “Just make sure I’m under this tree,” he told her. Diane never forgot, and when he died, the family got the county to build a road to the site. His parents would be interred alongside their son many years later.

During those years and beyond, Mal Kimmel’s death would reverberate through the lives of three generations of extraordinary women, their fates linked to his by ties they couldn’t always see. After all the casualties were tallied in 1970, more than a dozen had lost a parent in the crash.

Only one of those would never get to meet her father.

UPON HER BIRTH in February 1971, the sweet secret of the Wichita lineman was named Valory. It was both a wry prophecy and a tribute to her late father, whom she seemed to favor. “She had his hair. Her eyes are very much his,” Diane says. “Her mannerisms, some of her giggles. … I saw him in her, and so did her family.” Months later, Valory’s first spoken word would become a treasured part of Kimmel family lore: “Dada.”

Valory grew up strong, confident — and, she says, fascinated by “everything, everything” about the man whose shirts her mother sometimes wore and whose photograph was in the living room. “Sometimes we would tell him what we did that day,” Diane remembers. “I wanted her to know what a wonderful person he was.”

What struck Valory was how her mother “knew him for so long — even when he was young. I … wanted to live where he grew up,” she says, yearning for more time in Ste. Genevieve, where she’d spend holidays playing with her cousins. From her mother’s brief marriage to Rick Stephens — they were the only two people who knew what the other had gone through — Valory would get a younger sister, Tori. Valory, who preferred cheerleading to competitive athletics, always wanted to know what Mal had been like: “Depending on what was happening in my life, it would kind of prompt a question, like, ‘Did he play sports?'”

Diane would recount how Mal’s skills and quiet leadership at center earned him notice early on from college football recruiters. Mal wasn’t sure he wanted to go to college until he made all-conference his senior year. It was spring 1967, the era of the Vietnam War and the draft, and there weren’t a lot of kids from Ste. Genevieve getting college scholarships. “So we got out the maps — ‘Where’s Wichita?'” When he got the offer from WSU, he said yes.

Valory would also hear about Diane’s senior year in high school, the day she was riding in the homecoming parade through Ste. Genevieve wearing a long dress and a sash as a queen candidate, sitting in the back of a convertible to acknowledge her adoring public. And how Diane saw something she didn’t expect: Mal, right there on the street corner, home from college to surprise her and to be her date for the homecoming dance. He started waving, “and I fainted. It was … it was really touching.”

Valory would pray to her father every night. “I always say I’ve had a guardian angel,” she says. “I’m like, ‘OK, Dad, if there’s anything you can do about this, figure it out for me.'” Each year, she would see her mother’s mood darken as Oct. 2 drew near. “She would get so distraught,” Valory says.

“I have relived that crash so often,” Diane says. “I guess it is comforting if he really was asleep, but …”

Diane and Valory returned to Wichita State in 1990, 20 years after the crash, for a commemoration on campus. Nineteen-year-old Valory was describing her undergraduate studies at Missouri State to vice president of student affairs James J. Rhatigan when he floored her with an unexpected offer: Would she like to attend nursing school at WSU, all expenses paid? Just like her dad, Valory was being offered a scholarship by Wichita State. She said yes.

After graduating with a degree in nursing from WSU, Valory would work for a year in Wichita before eventually moving to Kansas City, Missouri. While working at a hospital there, she met a young surgeon named Chris Edwards. The two would marry, move to Nixa, Missouri, and have four children. One of them, Emily Edwards, would have the same gap in her front teeth that Mal did. Maybe Valory really did have a guardian angel. “I feel like he looks out for us,” Valory says. “I’ve had a pretty easy, blessed life — up until recently.”

IT TOOK A half-century for Mal Kimmel’s descendants to produce another all-conference athlete, but anyone who ever got to watch Emily Edwards play basketball would tell you she was worth the wait. “She had the ‘it’ factor,” says Jennifer Perryman, coach of the high school varsity team at Nixa. Perryman had first spotted Emily’s skills when she was in fifth grade; by ninth grade, Emily was the varsity starting point guard and Perryman was calling a last-second play for the 14-year-old to win the game against Branson. “I said, ‘No matter what, you take the shot. I trust you.’ And she did exactly what she needed to do.” Her buzzer-beater off the glass drove the crowd into a frenzy.

By junior year, Emily was on her way: all-everything in her region, with a college scholarship to a Division II school in Kansas City. So it was a little disconcerting when she began to experience shortness of breath and fatigue on the court. At first, recalls Valory, “she was like, ‘Maybe I’m just not in shape like I thought I was.’ So she would try harder.” An inhaler didn’t seem to help. “We had a fast break, and she was behind, like at half court,” Perryman remembers. “I said to our assistants, ‘Something is seriously wrong with Emily.'”

In Springfield, Missouri, she was set to undergo a battery of tests, but after her EKG, doctors there wouldn’t even let her get on the treadmill. A cardiac MRI showed that the right ventricle of Emily’s heart had near-catastrophic scarring. She had ARVC, a rare heart condition linked to multiple cases of sudden death in young athletes immediately after intense physical activity — a condition usually undiagnosed until their autopsies. It was her father who had to tell her: Emily’s basketball career was over.

Emily was heartbroken. And terrified. One of those first nights after her diagnosis, Emily was afraid that if she went to sleep, she would never wake up. Valory, daughter of someone who had done just that, went into Emily’s room to lie down beside her and reassure her.

Doctors at Johns Hopkins in Maryland implanted a battery-powered device in her chest to regulate her heartbeat. Her team wore the letter “E” for Emily on their jerseys. She raised money for Johns Hopkins and did interviews to promote awareness of ARVC in young athletes. Rockhurst University promised to honor her scholarship.

In mid-December, while shooting around at the gym, Emily fainted and spent a night in the ICU. That had never happened before. Despite the incident, Emily went with her family on their Christmas ski vacation to Granby, Colorado, 8,000 feet up in the mountains and less than 60 miles from where Mal had died. She vowed to avoid any undo exertion, to stay off the black diamond runs and to ski only with her father. “I was honestly kind of surprised she went,” Perryman said, “but I get it.”

On Dec. 23, Emily and her dad got in a few runs on the bunny slope. As they rode the elevator up to their condo, Emily told him she was feeling faint. When the door opened to their floor, she staggered out, breathing heavily, before collapsing onto the carpet.

Valory opened the door of the condo just as Emily lost consciousness. Her skin was mottled; she began to turn blue. And when her father searched for a pulse, he couldn’t find one. Valory watched as her husband performed CPR on their 18-year-old. She lifted up Emily’s legs to improve blood flow to her heart. Emily’s siblings called 911. She was given mouth-to-mouth. First one breath … nothing. Then another, and —

Emily stirred.

“I guess I was clocked out for the scary part,” Emily says. “I’m not sure my parents looked at me in the same way after watching me passed out like that.”

Her family wanted her close to a major hospital while she took it easy. “So me and my dad had to head home Christmas Eve,” Emily says. “We stopped at McDonald’s for our Christmas Eve dinner — we joke about this — and they forgot our sauce!”

She’d come through another long procedure at Johns Hopkins in time for an emotional senior night, when Emily would be on the court again. After the opening tip, “E looked at me, and I said, ‘Go shoot a layup.'” Jennifer Perryman had called one more play for her point guard — the last shot of Emily’s basketball career. Players on both teams moved out of the way.

“There was not a dry eye in the gym,” Diane says.

Emily would head off to college in excellent health. By that time, she’d found out something about ARVC: It’s inherited. “So my whole family got tested.” One of her sisters had it and had to stop playing competitive tennis. Though she’d never shown any symptoms, Valory had the gene. Her mother, Diane, did not.

Emily had inherited it from her grandfather. Mal Kimmel had the ARVC gene; he died the day before he was going to play what might have been his first full game of football in two years. It was the Wichita lineman’s last secret.

FIRST THING ON Oct. 2, 1970, Mal drove Diane from the off-campus apartment they shared off 21st Street in Wichita to Jardine Hall. After they parted, she began climbing the three or four flights of stairs that led to the office where she had worked 30 hours a week as a secretary since coming to school: the WSU psychology department.

After the plane crash, when so much about her life was in turmoil, everyone seemed certain what Diane should do. Mal’s parents thought she should come home to Ste. Genevieve. Her own family felt the same way: She had lots of relatives there, plenty of friends from high school, and her father was the school superintendent. Even Diane agreed: “Day one, I’m quitting school and moving home.”

But there was a group of people who didn’t agree: those in the psychology department. They had known Diane since her freshman year, and now, one professor after another told her, kindly, “No, that doesn’t sound like your best decision.” They urged her to wait, to get through the dark days and to reevaluate afterward. When everyone in her life was twisted with grief, they looked at this 20-year-old widow and saw a future for her. Together with Rhatigan, they had the training to help her through her confusion and fear, the resources to sustain her. “They gave me such good guidance,” Diane would say.

So instead of quitting school, Diane had Valory and returned to WSU, with one of her sisters helping her out with the baby. She graduated — and, boosted by a school stipend for family members affected by the crash, Diane got a master’s from Wichita State in speech pathology, especially enjoying her work with young children.

She wasn’t done. Diane went on to receive a doctorate in early childhood education from Missouri and would spend more than 40 years as an educator, teaching night classes at Missouri State beginning in 1979 while working as a speech pathologist and administrator in the Springfield public schools. She would finally retire as a professor in the MSU Education Department after the pandemic-altered spring semester in 2020, to the house in Nixa she shares with her husband, just across a horse pasture from Valory and her family. Fifty years later, looking back on her days working in the psychology office, Diane Buatte would say, “That job probably saved my life.”

That morning in 1970 — Mal Kimmel’s last morning — Diane got to the top floor and took one more glance through the staircase’s windows, out to the bright, clear day that was beginning to blossom. She looked north, down to the street below and …

… there he was. Mal. He had waited for her to reach the top of the stairs. He wanted to know she’d gotten there OK. So just before going into the psychology department, Diane smiled at Mal. And then she waved goodbye.

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