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The Denver Post Online

The Denver Post

Air-show crash a vivid memory 50 years later

September 9, 2001
Section: DTW
Page: B-04
Kit Miniclier Denver Post Staff Writer

Caption: PHOTOS: Denver Post photos/Helen H. Davis Lyle Stone poses in front of a memorial honoring the 20 victims of the Sept. 15, 1951 , air-show crash in Flagler. Stone's parents grabbed four children and ran to safety just before a stunt plane cut through the air-show crowd. Clyde Coulter, who was editor of the Flagler newspaper when the air-show crash occurred, talks about the disaster recently as his wife, Ruth, listens. The couple recalls the tragedy of Sept. 15, 1951 , as if it happened yesterday.

FLAGLER - As the single-engine plane roared toward the crowd, Lyle Stone saw his parents each grab two children under their arms, jump off the low airfield fence, and run as fast as they could.

Moments later, virtually everyone left on the fence was killed as the plane cut through the crowd like a scythe. Twenty were killed, including the pilot.

Rhynold Fager remembers seeing a friend on her knees, dying, impaled by a propeller blade.

Charlie Keller, whose wife and two children were killed that day, was able to identify his wife's remains only by a birthmark on her leg.

Next Saturday, this quiet farming community 118 miles east of Denver will revisit the unforgettable day of horror in somber ceremonies marking its 50th anniversary.

From the granite memorial bearing the names of the dead, including 13 children, one can look south across the verdant lawn of the municipal park, across Interstate 70, to the airfield and its windsock.

The windsock, Stone says, is at the same spot it was on that tragic September day.

Fager, who erected a tall metal cross above the memorial, dedicated seven years ago, will participate in the memorial ceremony. Witnesses are scheduled to retell the story of that day, and there will be prayers, a hymn, taps and a 21-gun salute.

Sept. 15, 1951 , was Fall Festival Day. It started with a parade, and there was a kite-flying contest and a free barbecue in the park.

Then everyone, nearly 2,000 people from farms across the high plains, made their way to the airfield in anticipation of an air show sponsored by the Flagler Lions Club.

Soon after 2 p.m. , after a glider exhibition, a stunt plane piloted by Air Force 1st Lt. Norman Jones of Denver flew in low over the crowd and attempted a loop. Jones arrived late and missed the safety briefing that prohibited flying less than 500 feet above the ground and banned any stunts near the crowd.

"The plane crashed into the stunned mass of spectators from an altitude of less than 200 feet, cutting a bloody swath and strewing gasoline-drenched wreckage over a 150-yard area," wrote Denver Post reporter William Barker, who was in town to cover the air show.

"The chaos that followed is beyond description. ... It was like the end of the world. Bodies were everywhere. The blood was everywhere, too," wrote Barker, whose account appeared in both The Denver Post and an extra edition of the weekly Flagler News the next day.

"I stopped as the scene ravaged my senses. Cars crushed. Bodies ... and parts of bodies. ... Blood on staring faces. People milling like sheep around the fallen. Voices rising and falling oddly, without hysteria. Without panic. Stunned. Too stunned yet to believe what we all were seeing," Barker continued.

The first clear voice anyone remembers after the crash was a warning from a loudspeaker:

"Please don't light any cigarettes. Don't start any cars. High-test gasoline is all over the place and will explode and burn."

Stone's parents, Connie and Minerva, acted instinctively and escaped unscathed with the four children who were lucky enough to sit next to them.

Fortunately, Flagler, population about 600 then and now, had its own hospital. However, the disintegrating aircraft demolished the town's ambulance, so the dead, dying and wounded were brought in by trucks and sedans.

Ambulances and medical personnel responded from nearby communities and as far away as Goodland , Kan. , and Denver 's Lowry Field, which dispatched doctors, nurses and medics aboard three air ambulances.

As word of the tragedy spread, doctors and nurses rushed to assist staff physicians John C. Straub and William L. McBride. McBride had delivered nine of the 13 dead children, Stone recalled.

Everyone who had ever worked at the hospital rushed to help. "It was amazing. You'd think it was almost planned. Everyone seemed to know what to do," said Ruth Coulter.

"Everybody was doing something to help," she said, and volunteers were soon serving coffee and food, and providing solace to relatives from a garage opposite the hospital.

Coulter's husband, Clyde , who was editor and publisher of the Flagler News from 1948 until 1991, put out his first and only "Special Edition" to let people know what had happened, who the dead were and how the community had pulled together in response to the catastrophe.

Now 86, he recalls the events of a half century ago as if they'd happened yesterday. He was there with Ruth and their two small children, all of whom escaped injury.

Calls from distant friends and relatives and the media came ringing in, everyone asking Coulter for a precise list of the dead. Many families left the mortuary in shock after identifying their own, but no one was keeping a list, so teachers were enlisted to help identify the victims, and by Saturday evening they had a list of the dead.

"In small towns, we are all family. We all know each other and work together. Just listing the names was tough," he said, pausing to look out the window. "It was such a senseless thing to happen."

Overnight, the Coulters put out their extra edition of the newspaper, complete with a page-one photo of the disaster from The Denver Post, and full details of the accident.

Four days later, the regular edition of the Flagler News carried 20 heart-rending obituaries, most of which were written by the families of the victims.

They included a thank-you note from two families, which summed up the all-embracing response of the community:

"Our sincere thanks and gratitude for all those comforting acts which helped so much in our deep sorrow. We are so grateful for the food, to those who cooked and served it, to those who dug the graves, to those who provided sleeping accommodations for relatives and for all the flowers and cards of sympathy."