Approximately 45 people, both family and friends, gathered on May 16 in memory of six victims of a plane that fell in the Nebraska Sandhills. The plane went down on January 11, 1969 during a harsh snowstorm that was happening at the time. The plane was discovered nearly three months after the crash by two locals, Marvin Hazen and Lenard Christen, while hunting on the land for coyotes. The families of Frayne Anderson, K. Don Tibbets, Joyce Estwick, Linda Heidemann, Al Jensen and James Houske were forever changed after this crash had occurred.
Forty years have passed since the date of the crash, but the hurt of this day still exists in the hearts of the family members. One member, in particular, had a lasting dream of, someday, traveling to the site where her father Frayne Anderson had lost his life. Heidi Emanuel was 11 years old when the news of her father’s death reached her family. Since that day, she had always dreamed of setting foot on the ground that took her father’s life. “For years now, I have wanted to find the crash site,” she said, “it has just been on my mind.” After contacting the Custer County Sheriff’s Department and getting in contact with the local librarian, Joan Birnie, Heidi’s dream was on its way to becoming a reality. Joan researched the local archives and discovered the names of the hunters who had come upon the remains of the crash and this got the “ball rolling.” After months of planning, and arranging a date for the families to get together, Heidi had set the ceremony to take place on Saturday, May 16th, 2009.
On Saturday morning, the 40-50 individuals met in Broken Bow at 7:30 a.m. and set out for the crash site. Only three of the six families were present, but the other three families were there in spirit. It was clear why the plane was so difficult to find when the sight was reached; it was over thirty minutes from the McGinn ranch. Four-wheel drive vehicles were required to reach the site which was found amongst many hills and valleys of the McGinn ranch. A post that no longer remained due to cattle rubbing against it had once marked the place where the crash was discovered; however, the ground was bare where the post was once present. This bare spot of land, which was so difficult to find was where the ceremony was held and what each family had been longing to see since the day they learned that the plane had been discovered.
The plane, a Cherokee six aircraft, was carrying two adult males and four students of Augustana College in South Dakota. The group was returning from a debate competition in Denver, Colorado where they had just defeated top schools such as Yale University and Harvard University. After the news of the crash, a search party was held. Not only did locals search for nearly three months, but approximately 200 students and faculty of Augustana College also searched for several days for remains of the crash. Difficulty in finding the plane was because the white plane was camouflaged in the surrounding snow.
The gathering on the 16th was the first time the families of the victims met in person. They shared a very emotional ceremony. Father Jim Hunt held a short service before each of the families shared their personal memories of the victims. He began the service with a hymn that began with the following words: “This is holy ground; we are standing on holy ground.” This hymn could not have been more fitting for the ceremony. Rob Oliver, President of Augustana College attended the ceremony. “The word that means the most in terms of our gathering,” he said, “is family; we are all, indeed, one family.”
Each family, then, shared a few stories about their family members. During the ceremony, the families laid six biodegradable crosses, along with six roses, one for each member of the crash. The ceremony was concluded with Mike Christen playing taps. Mike’s father was one of the men that found the remains of the plane crash. Following the ceremony, the family collected sand from the crash site, which had been blessed with holy water and wet from tears of those present. The sand was a way for the families to take home a piece of the land that had held their loved ones hostage for three long months. The ceremony was very emotional and, hopefully, was a way to fill the void that was present for the family members who attended.
Everyone present gathered around the patch of ground
where the plane had crashed
The families, friends and community members that
attended the ceremony
Father Jim Hunt, who held the ceremony standing next to
Heidi Emanuel (right) and other family members surround them both.