Saturday, December 14, 2002

Evansville recalls plane crash of 1977

The Associated Press

EVANSVILLE, Ind. - As the former Vietnam medic approached the plane he had seen drop out of the southwest Indiana sky that misty winter evening 25 years ago, he could not escape the feeling that he was walking into a graveyard.

"As we got closer, my first impression was it looked like there were a lot of tombstones scattered around. Then I realized they were seats with many of the passengers still strapped in them," said Gene Hollencamp, now a 53-year-old service station manager.

All but two were dead, and they died within hours. Mr. Hollencamp did not realize who the dead sitting all around him were until he saw a University of Evansville flight bag.

"`Oh, my God, this is the Aces,"' he remembered thinking.

The twin-engine DC-3 carrying Evansville's mens basketball team to an away game crashed at 7:22 p.m. on Dec. 13, 1977, killing all 29 people aboard.

In the old days, the Purple Aces likely would have taken a bus, but this was their first season in Division I and the team had booked a charter jet for the trip to their game the next night against Middle Tennessee State.

Thousands had turned out to cheer the team to five small-college championships when it was in Division II. In the days following the crash, thousands turned out to mourn them.

Hundreds of students visited the university chapel, and 4,000 people attended a community memorial service the following Sunday at Roberts Stadium.

At noon Friday, the team was remembered yet again in a memorial service at a monument to the team on the Evansville campus. The memorial plaza was built with $134,000 of more than $300,000 in donations that poured in to the school following the tragedy.

Six of the players' families later said more of the money should have gone into scholarships, but university officials say they annually award scholarships and have a moment of silence, usually at the first home basketball game.

First-year coach Steve Merfeld said he is forthcoming about the crash if the subject comes up when a prospective recruit visits campus.

"You have to be open about it and deal with it the best way you can," he said. "It's something you don't hide.

"A lot of times, student-athletes aren't aware of it, but their families are. And with the popularity of sports, people are aware of those kind of tragedies. They are not forgotten."

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