Friday is the 50th anniversary of the Piatt Street Plane Crash in Wichita.
On January 16, 1965, a Boeing tanker filled with 31,000 gallons of jet fuel took off from McConnell Air Force Base and within 4 minutes, nose-dived into a predominantly black neighborhood – a few blocks west of Wichita State University.
It’s considered the worst aviation disaster in Kansas’s history, killing all 7 airmen aboard the U-S Air Force KC-135 fuel tanker and 23 civilians on the ground.
Sharon Dale Watkins was 15 years old at the time. She lived on the corner of 20th & Piatt Street, the place where the 12 foot black granite monument is now erected in memory of the victims. She lost her mother, Alice Dale, her two-year-old sister, Cheryl Ann Dale, and her cocker spaniel in the destruction.
Sharon had left her mom and sister sleeping that morning during a short trip to her grandmother's. Her father, Harvey Dale, was at work at Excel Meat Packing plant when the plane went down. Sharon remembers her father’s reaction.
"My daddy was hysterical," she explains. "He broke down and cried he said, 'Well at least God was with you, you made it.' He said, 'We lost everything else but I still have one, that’s my daughter.'"
Both she and her father returned to find their home destroyed.
“I met my dad over here and part of the plane was like laying in our yard," she says, "so it was just – you know being 15 you don’t understand stuff like that.”
Sharon says there was nothing left of her white two-bedroom home with the big fence around the backyard….
"There was nothing--absolutely nothing. I don’t know, it was gone. It was just gone!"
Funeral arrangements were made for the victims and Sharon says she’s not sure how the remains of her loved ones were determined after the horrific blaze.
"I don’t know if that was actually them in the casket or not, I really don’t," she says. "Cause the bodies were burnt up so bad that I don’t know if they actually put what ever they put in the caskets it was closed caskets you know so but it was just sad, sad lots of people there you know and it was just sad."
Sharon, who is now 65 years old, takes part in the memorial ceremony held on January 16th every year at the Piatt Street Plane Crash site.
"Once a tragedy happens like that, they should always be remembered," she says. "You know people are being killed everyday but this was totally different this was something done by an airplane – people that’s trying to live trying to have everyday good life and it was no warning so I think the monument here was a great idea."
The 50th anniversary remembrance ceremony takes place at the Piatt Street Plane Crash site at 20th & Piatt in Wichita Friday at 3 pm. The event will include a plane flyover from the commemorative JayhawkWing. The Honored Guard of McConnell AFB will present the colors. The American Legion Riders will also participate. The Piatt Street Memorial Committee will also host an honorary dinner for those who lost their family members at 6:00 pm Friday at the WSU Metroplex.