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Iowa State runners recall day of triumph, tragedy 30 years later

Iowa State runners recall day of triumph, tragedy 30 years later

Associated Press

DES MOINES — It's been 30 years since the plane crash and Jill Slettedahl-Winter still aches at the memory.

She can see the Iowa State cross country runners, coaches and others who died on that November night in Des Moines, seven in all. She was an 18-year-old freshman, and she thinks of just how young they all were.

'There was so much potential there. What would have happened if that plane hadn't crashed?' she asks. 'They would have gone onto such wonderful things, such wonderful families.'

They had just come near the pinnacle of their sport, finishing a surprising second in the NCAA Women's Cross Country Championships on a snowy course in Milwaukee, and suddenly it was torn apart on an icy, foggy night, leaving their teammates in shock that a day that started with such elation could end in such sadness. 'It's still one of the best days of my whole life. We were surprised and so amazed and giddy, I guess, at how we had done,' Slettedahl-Winter said. 'It was an instantaneous drop to the worst day of my whole life.'

On Wednesday, members of that team and community members will gather at the crash site in a quiet Des Moines neighborhood to recall the three runners, two coaches, athletic trainer and pilot who died that night of Nov. 25, 1985.

'It taught me, just of the frailty of life and that I have today and I don't know if I'm given tomorrow,' said Tami Prescott, who was a 19-yearold freshman runner.

For the team, the day began in Milwaukee, where coach Ron Renko expressed optimism the women could finish as high as sixth place.

It was a talented group, with two runners from Britain and others from the Midwest. They expected to do well at the NCAA championships.

It was a fast race, and the women were happy about their performance but had no idea how well they had done. Coaches thought they might have finished second, behind only the University of Wisconsin. They turned out to be right.

The team departed early because of bad weather approaching.

They divided themselves between three planes. The plane carrying runners Sheryl Maahs of Spirit Lake; Sue Baxter of Brentwood, Essex, England; Julie Rose of Ashford, Kent, England; plus Renko, assistant coach Pat Moynihan and student trainer Stephanie Streit was delayed briefly as coaches picked up the trophy. Icy conditions forced the pilots to divert to the larger Des Moines airport. The first two planes arrived safely, and the runners waited for their teammates. Finally, an Iowa State staffer told them the plane had crashed a few miles northwest of the airport.

The plane slammed into a hill, coming to rest against an oak tree in the front yard of a large house. It cut power to the neighborhood and burst into flame, leaving little of the twin-engine plane but its tail. The plane's front cone skidded into the middle of the street.

All aboard were killed, including pilot Burt Watkins.

More than 6,000 people gathered at Iowa State's basketball arena to mourn the deaths, but over the years memories of the team waned. Tim Lane, who organizes running events in the Des Moines area, suggested gathering on the 30th anniversary and raising money for a permanent memorial. Runners like Lane have joined to plan a permanent memorial at the Temple B'Nai Jeshurun synagogue, just a few hundred feet up a hill, overlooking the crash site.

Ron Maahs, the brother of Sheryl Maahs, has helped plan the memorial and will attend the event. He said the attention has been difficult. 'It's nice people are thinking of it, but it dredges up a lot of bad memories,' he said.

By Scott McFeitridge

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