On January 16, 1965, the worst non-natural disaster in Kansas history occurred on the North side of Wichita. A KC-135 military refueling plane malfunctioned after take-off from Boeing, where it was on temporary duty refueling B-52 bombers exiting the plant. The pilots jettisoned a great deal of fuel before diving the plane nose-first into the ground to avoid further loss of life. All seven servicemen on board the plane lost their life. The City of Wichita’s website describes the event as the worst fire-related disaster in Wichita history and recalls:
The aircraft had just taken off from McConnell Air Force Base in the southeast part of the City. Due to engine failure, the huge plane plummeted to earth in a gigantic fire and explosion that rocked the City and sprayed the adjacent homes with burning fuel. The first company to arrive at the scene immediately radioed for a second alarm. Additional calls for assistance brought off-duty personnel, units from the Sedgwick County, McConnell Air Force Base, and reserve firefighters. The toll in this disaster numbered thirty lives, including seven crew members of the aircraft. Ten homes were lost and others were damaged.
In a flash, 23 community members on the ground and the seven crewmen on board were suddenly taken. Pictures from Kansas.com show the devastation. Survivors, such as Sonya House, recall the bitter cold of the morning, their doors and windows imploding at once, and the acts of heroism that saved so many. For many years, a memorial has existed at McConnell Air Force Base. But up until recent history, the Southwest corner of 20th & Piatt, bore no trace of the tragedy.
Starting with one fundraiser held at the house of local music celebrity, Rudy Love, community donations poured in. Aided by Dr. Carla Lee, memorial coordinator, these community donations eventually reached $25,000. Some donors even bought and customized bricks at the foot of the memorial. A final call by Monument Committee Chair (then a State Representative) Oletha Faust-Goudeau to US Senator Pat Roberts solicited the rest of the funds necessary for SI Memorials of Parsons, Kansas, to construct the timeless granite memorial that now stands in the once empty corner of the Piatt Memorial Park.
Through the encouragement of John Poulsen and Sen. Oletha Faust-Goudeau’s leadership as chairwoman of the Monument committee, a dream of memorializing and remembering lost loved ones and community members, a dream on hiatus since 1965, finally came true. On January 16th, 2012, Oletha, her fellow Monument Committee members, victims’ family and friends, donors, community members, and city fire, police, and government officials came together to remember. West High ROTC Color Guard members raised flags flown (respectively) over the state and national capitols. Victims’ families spoke out and all there were left with lasting memories of who and what was lost 47 years earlier.
Senator Faust-Goudeau would like to thank everyone that came out and made this event memorable.