Documentary explores how 1965 Wichita plane crash left families (like mine) locked in a moment

January 10, 2023 3:33 am

Mark McCormick’s aunt Laura Faust, left, and his mother are shown in a new documentary about the crash of a fuel tanker into a Wichita neighborhood. McCormick’s 5-year-old cousin, Tracy Randolph (inset) was among those killed. (Riccardo Harris, Mark McCormick)

Kansas Reflector welcomes opinion pieces from writers who share our goal of widening the conversation about how public policies affect the day-to-day lives of people throughout our state. Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum, a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and deputy executive director at the ACLU of Kansas.

After a fully fueled KC-135 military tanker crashed into what was then a segregated Wichita neighborhood, my sister Chan chose not to believe our 5-year-old cousin, Tracy Randolph, had died in the fiery 1965 disaster.

Chandra McCormick, weeks from her 12th birthday, watched soap operas with our great-grandmother, Jessie Pearl Holloway, whom we called Big Mama. Chan borrowed a common storyline from the shows and told herself Tracy had just lost her memory. When her amnesia lifted, Tracy would come home.

But that Saturday morning crash — still considered Kansas’ deadliest air disaster — killed 30 people, including Tracy, our grandmother Mary Daniels (we called her Little Mama), our uncle C.L. Daniels and our cousin Clyde Holloway.

Documentarians Kevin Harrison, Riccardo Harris and Kenneth Hawkins want to re-examine the grief of survivors from that Jan. 16 morning — people either carrying that grief and continuing to live, or those who coped by existing because living felt impossible.

Interviewing them convinced me that I needed to look no further than my childhood household for various expressions of grief, though my mother and my aunt almost never spoke of it.

The tanker had just left McConnell Air Force Base outside Wichita but struggled to climb. As a crash seemed imminent, the crew began dumping fuel, but the plane dived into a vacant lot. A cascade of 32,000 gallons of jet fuel and fire incinerated a dozen homes.

The entire crew died. The crash gouged a crater 15 feet deep. The emotional trauma ran deeper. Several children died, as did an entire family. The accident left others homeless.

A Kansas Historical Society article praised the initial disaster response but said “that help started to wane.” It described the temporary survivor housing as “rundown and unsafe.”

It described the legal settlements as “disappointing.”

“One family received just $400,” the article said, while the average settlement stood at $13,000, minus the 20% that went to attorney fees. Many survivors wondered whether the payouts would have been more substantial had they been white.

Two children visit Santa Claus
Mark McCormick’s sister, Chanda (left), visits Santa Claus with cousin Tracy Randolph. (Mark McCormick)

Segregation, according to D.W. Carter, author of “Mayday Over Wichita,” forced Black people into a small area, boosting the death toll. Wichita then ranked as one of the nation’s most segregated cities.

The documentary intends to excavate all this ground.

“My interest in this story increased as I learned more about the victims,” said Harris, who is my cousin and executive director of GEAR UP at Wichita State University. I attended KU with both him and Harrison in the late 1980s. “I hope the unheard voices of the victims — those who died and those left behind — can finally be heard and understood.”

Harrison, an assistant professor for the Cohen Honor College at WSU, said previous books and films about the crash didn’t sufficiently examine survivors’ emotions.

“Every rung of Maslow’s ladder expresses the desire to be heard and understood,” Harrison said, referring to the model of basic human needs. “This project was an opportunity to give a voice to the voiceless.”

Harrison said previous projects identified victims’ names and addresses. He intends to dig deeper.

“Stories give us power,” he said. “I want to explore real emotion.”

A $10,000 Kansas Humanities Council grant funds the project, along with a partnership with Omega Psi Phi Fraternity. Robert Weems Jr., a professor of Business History at WSU serves as project consultant. They plan to screen the film at the park near the crash site this spring.

I wasn’t born until 1967. Still, the crash never seemed far away.

I was an adult, for example, before learning from my sister that my aunt Laura Faust, Tracy’s mother, doted over every boy-child in the family, but never had much to do with the girls, who likely reminded her too much of Tracy. Much of what I know, my sister shared.

Every rung of Maslow’s ladder expresses the desire to be heard and understood. This project was an opportunity to give a voice to the voiceless.

– Kevin Harrison

Chan shared a particularly cruel story about witnesses claiming to have seen a child, engulfed in flames, running from one of the homes and collapsing. Someone asked our aunt if that child was Tracy.

Horrified, I asked how she replied.

“She didn’t,” Chan said. “She just closed her eyes and lowered her head.”

When loved ones die, ”what ifs” and our memories can act as comforting counterweights when pain starts to circle. But with a child, the what ifs must seem gargantuan because of what the child never had a chance to become. My aunt suffered quietly, dying at 65.

My sister planned to visit our grandmother’s house that morning but overslept.

She awoke to my aunt leaving to drop Tracy at Little Mama’s. Chan started walking there later, but along the way, the ground shook and black smoke filled the air. Where our grandmother’s house stood, she saw a lake of fire.

“I was numb,” she said. “It didn’t seem real.”

The grief stricken can find themselves locked in a moment, compressing a traumatizing incident into perhaps its worst instant.

A child might do what my sister did, create a magical narrative as a means of coping.

An adult might do what my aunt Laura did — hold it in, withdraw, and struggle through life existing because she couldn’t peel back enough of the grief to really live.

People grieve differently, doing their best to move from one moment to the next and secure some semblance of safety and control.

In 1965’s segregated Wichita, neither our family nor our neighbors — however we grieved — really had much of either.

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Mark McCormick
Mark McCormick

Mark McCormick is the former executive director of The Kansas African American Museum, a member of the Kansas African American Affairs Commission and deputy executive director at the ACLU of Kansas.