A quar­ter-cen­tury later, re­mem­ber­ing 6 friends

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - BY SU­SAN SVRLUGA

On her wed­ding day, Sue Ann Richards played the mu­sic they had planned for the pro­ces­sional, as she sat, sob­bing, on her groom’s grave.

It was the day af­ter his fu­neral. His best man was dead, too.

Six friends — fun-lov­ing, ath­letic, ad­ven­tur­ous guys in their 30s — had crashed in a small plane. Ten of them had gone on an an­nual fish­ing trip to the Outer Banks, but only four made it home to North­ern Vir­ginia.

The search took a week and trans­fixed the Wash­ing­ton area, as fam­ily mem­bers camped out at a small air­port in Manas­sas and hun­dreds of vol­un­teers hiked through fields, woods and moun­tains of an enor­mous swath of ru­ral Vir­ginia, try­ing to find the six friends.

Twenty-five years later, some of those who loved them gath­ered this week­end to play golf, play cards and cel­e­brate their lives.

A lot has changed since the May 1990 crash: Par­ents have died, cou­ples have come to­gether, chil­dren were born, grew up, went off to col­lege. It is dif­fi­cult to re­mem­ber a time when a plane could be lost for so many days, when peo­ple would do­nate copy ma­chines to help make pa­per maps for search par­ties, and a com­pany would in­stall a bank of pay phones at the air­port so peo­ple could get news.

But some things did not change: The bonds be­tween them are as tight as ever.

“We are all so in­ter­con­nected,”

“We’ve never come across a group of peo­ple like those guys were.” Sue Ann Richards, whose fi­ance was killed in a May 1990 plane crash

said Lourine Cooney, who was 29 years old and three months preg­nant when her then-new hus­band, Ron­nie Wiencek, died.

When they get to­gether, they tell sto­ries about the six friends, how funny their lives were, how they were such crazy thrillseek­ers. Wiencek used to of­ten tell her that when he died, it was go­ing to be big.

Richards had a bad feel­ing about the trip be­fore her fi­ance, Alan David Wegge­land, left.

She fig­ured it was just pre-wed­ding jit­ters, but it both­ered her enough, this idea in her head of a plane crash­ing in the dark in a storm, that she pleaded with him not to fly at night. She stayed up late to write a let­ter about how much she loved him.

She felt so sick when his plane took off that she can­celed the last fit­ting of her ivory satin-and-lace wed­ding dress.

The friends did ev­ery­thing to­gether — play­ing soft­ball, bas­ket­ball, sail­ing. If one of the guys got onto the boat with a stuffed par­rot on a shoul­der, an eye patch, a plas­tic knife gripped in his teeth, no one was sur­prised.

Wiencek, a con­trac­tor, was the glue; he led their soft­ball team, he or­ga­nized the an­nual fish­ing trip, he flew one of the two small planes they took. They snapped a photo the day be­fore they left for home, 10 guys grin­ning in the sun­shine on a dock, af­ter a day of fish­ing and bas­ket­ball played in flip-flops.

One of the friends drove home with all their golf clubs and the hun­dreds of pounds of tuna they’d caught. Two planes took off. They knew a storm was com­ing in, so they de­cided to fly at night to try to beat the bad weather. The plane flown by Steve Sisk touched down in Rich­mond to re­fuel and lost con­tact with the other Cessna.

The next morn­ing, when Sisk and Wiencek’s wife re­al­ized only one plane had landed back in Vir­ginia, their first thought was the guys might be pulling a pre-wed­ding prank, maybe spir­it­ing Wegge­land off to At­lantic City or some­thing crazy.

But when Richards went to the air­port to check whether the plane had taken off from Man­teo, the look on the faces of the peo­ple who worked there told her ev­ery­thing: An alert was out. The flight was miss­ing.

She tried to call Wiencek’s sis­ter, Deb Rowan, and col­lapsed in a phone booth, hys­ter­i­cal.

The fam­i­lies of Wiencek, Wegge­land, Jim Wolfe, R. David Day, Wil­liam Lloyd Jr. and Doug DeBoer stayed at the air­field dur­ing the day, ty­ing yel­low rib­bons around their wrists, some wear­ing the green shirts from the soft­ball team.

So be­gan a week of prayers, of deals Richards tried to make with God to get them home safely, of sto­ries traded be­tween fam­i­lies, of regular brief­ings in a gi­ant tent at the air­port, of pos­si­ble pings from the transpon­der that kept turn­ing out to be false leads.

There were or­ga­nized ef­forts to find the plane, and vol­un­teer ef­forts, cov­er­ing nearly one-third of the state, near Lake Anna and the north­ern part of Shenan­doah Na­tional Park. The Civil Air Pa­trol flew more than 10,000 miles. Stu­dent groups fanned out through fields. A group of mo­tor­cy­clists combed through back roads. Rowan pleaded to peo­ple watch­ing on tele­vi­sion, “If you’re hear­ing this, and you’re north of Rich­mond, please search your land. Please search your farm.”

On Mother’s Day, with rain pour­ing down, they wished for the sons to be found. One evening, a group of the fam­ily mem­bers went to get some­thing to eat and passed a small chapel. The door was open, and they went in­side and prayed to­gether. Ev­ery night when Richards got home, she would find in the mail a cou­ple more RSVPs for the wed­ding.

Then, the Vir­ginia Na­tional Guard was de­ployed. But it was DeBoer’s brother Todd who found a piece of ma­roon-and­white metal deep in dense woods in Spot­syl­va­nia County south­west of Fred­er­icks­burg. Other vol­un­teers went in.

In Manas­sas later that af­ter­noon, an of­fi­cial said, “Your boys aren’t go­ing to come home.” The tent filled with screams.

Some still thought, in the backs of their minds, the six friends, so young and strong, were off on some adventure, maybe play­ing an­other prac­ti­cal joke. Rowan was so cer­tain her brother was alive that she talked a friend into driv­ing straight to the crash site and got lost for hours un­til they stum­bled upon flash­ing lights from the emer­gency crews blaz­ing in the night. A po­lice of­fi­cer turned her back, but the next day, two peo­ple from each fam­ily were al­lowed to go in.

“I’ll never for­get the smell,” Richards said. “The smell of death was ev­ery­where.”

Wiencek’s wife kept com­ing back, search­ing for his wed­ding ring. They never found it, but they found odd rem­nants: eye­glasses, a tooth­brush, a plas­tic comb. A res­cue worker told Richards that they found her let­ter to Wegge­land.

More than a thou­sand peo­ple came to a me­mo­rial for the six men, lis­ten­ing to the song that was meant to be Richards’s first dance with her new hus­band: “What a Won­der­ful World.” Then the fu­ner­als be­gan. Twenty-five years later, the six stones they laid at the air­port that week, makeshift mark­ers, are gone. Other memo­ri­als, such as char­i­ta­ble dona­tions, re­main, and con­tinue. Some peo­ple thought of the friends as they gath­ered for drinks or din­ner or golf this week­end; oth­ers re­mem­ber them in their own way. Rowan thinks of her brother ev­ery day as she passes his fa­vorite restau­rant or his grave site by their mother’s house. Lourine Cooney, long since re­mar­ried and with two chil­dren, thinks of the baby girl she lost in preg­nancy months af­ter the crash. She named the girl Ron­nie.

“Ev­ery­one thinks their loved one who died is spe­cial, their group of friends is spe­cial,” Richards said. “But we’ve lived 25 years and we’ve never come across a group of peo­ple like those guys were. The happy story is we’re all still friends. We all still love each other.”

She and Rowan are go­ing to ask air­port of­fi­cials next week if they can add a me­mo­rial. They’d like to re­name the Manas­sas air­field “Six Friends Air­port.”

COUR­TESY OF DEB­BIE ROWAN

The 10 friends on their an­nual fish­ing trip in Nags Head, N.C., on May 9, 1990, the day be­fore a plane six of them were in crashed.

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