40 Years Ago, A Deadly Plane Crash 'Tore At The Fabric' Of One Indiana City05:48
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Wreckage of a DC-3 which crashed on takeoff from Dress Regional Airport in Evansville, Ind., lies on top of a ridge adjoining railroad tracks, Dec. 14, 1977. Twenty-nine people died in the crash, including the University of Evansville basketball team. (AP Photo)
Wreckage of a DC-3 which crashed on takeoff from Dress Regional Airport in Evansville, Ind., lies on top of a ridge adjoining railroad tracks, Dec. 14, 1977. Twenty-nine people died in the crash, including the University of Evansville basketball team. (AP Photo)
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The University of Evansville team was just four games into its first season in Division I, college basketball's highest level.

The Purple Aces had been a juggernaut in the small college basketball world. There were only about 2,500 students at the school in southwest Indiana, but Evansville had won five national championships in Division II when they made the move up.

It was Dec. 13, 1977. The team, head coach Bobby Watson, members of his staff, the radio broadcaster and some fans boarded a plane at the Evansville Airport. They were on their way to Tennessee for a game against Middle Tennessee State.

They never made it.

The plane crashed on a muddy hillside next to a ravine not long after takeoff. All 29 people on board were killed.

Workers watch as a large crane swings the tail section of the wrecked DC-3 on to a flatbed car as the remains of the plane are cleared away at Dress Regional Airport in Evansville, Ind., Dec. 16, 1977. (Chuck Robinson/AP)
Workers watch as a large crane swings the tail section of the wrecked DC-3 on to a flatbed car as the remains of the plane are cleared away at Dress Regional Airport in Evansville, Ind., Dec. 16, 1977. (Chuck Robinson/AP)

Evansville was and remains a small city. Basketball was the glue that held it together.

"I would say growing up, being an Evansville native, the Aces basketball was the thing to do on Saturday nights," says Patrick Wathen, the police reporter for The Evansville Courier in 1977.

He made his way to crash site after he got a call from his city editor. When he got there he saw bodies on the ground but at that point really had no idea who the passengers had been.

"I actually glanced down on the ground and I saw an Aces duffel bag and that's when my heart sank," Wathen says. "That's when I realized that this had been the basketball team."

There were no cellphones at this time of course, but the news traveled. A temporary morgue was set up in the city's community center. The bodies of the victims arrived on a railroad car.

"It absolutely tore at the fabric of the community, it devastated the whole town," says Joe Atkinson, director of the new documentary "From the Ashes," which tells the story of the tragedy and its aftermath.

The University of Evansville basketball team shown in September 1977. (AP)
The University of Evansville basketball team shown in September 1977. (AP)

Atkinson now teaches at the university.

"I walk past the memorial to that team every single day, and every day I would see the names carved in the monument," he says. "And I became very curious as to what the rest of their story is, because of course we all know the end. The end of the story is the plane crash. That was sort of the genesis for the documentary."

The players on the 1977-78 University of Evansville basketball team were from places like Tell City, Indiana, and Goldsboro, North Carolina. Freshman Greg Smith had never been on a plane before. They were all buried in their hometowns. In Eldorado, Illinois, the caskets of Mike Duff and Kevin Kingston were side by side on the gym floor where they had played.

"These are small communities and these guys were the equivalent of rock stars when they played there in high school," Atkinson says. "Losing them was devastating to those communities just like it was here in Evansville."

The only member of the Evansville team who was not on the plane that night was a young man named David Furr. He was supposed to make the trip but he had an ankle injury, so he stayed behind. Two weeks after the crash he was killed in a car accident.

So many bonds were broken that night. Wathen had grown up listening to Evansville games on the radio.

"Those games came to me by a gentleman named Marv Bates, who happened to be on that plane when it crashed, and that broke my heart as well because I had an opportunity to meet Marv and he was just a wonderful man," Wathen says.

The family members of University of Evansville basketball player Kevin Kingston pass his casket as they arrive at a memorial service for Kingston and Mike Duff at the Eldorado High School gym in Eldorado, Ill., Dec. 17, 1977. (Brian Horton/AP)
The family members of University of Evansville basketball player Kevin Kingston pass his casket as they arrive at a memorial service for Kingston and Mike Duff at the Eldorado High School gym in Eldorado, Ill., Dec. 17, 1977. (Brian Horton/AP)

The families of the victims searched for answers about what happened on Dec. 13, 1977. The National Transportation Safety Board investigated, and in the end it fell to human error. It was a terrible accident.

Time passed. The basketball program was revived, but it's hard to bring back the glory days that led to that 1977 season that ended before it had barely begun.

Today, the University of Evansville holds a ceremony to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the plane crash. The words spoken by then-university President Wallace Graves at the school's memorial just days after the crash will no doubt echo down the years.

"Out of the agony of this hour we will rise."

This segment aired on December 13, 2017.

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Alex Ashlock Twitter Producer, Here & Now
Alex Ashlock has been a producer for Here & Now since 2005. He started his WBUR career as senior producer of Morning Edition in 1998.

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