The day began as any other. The members each arrived that morning, and before long, they were flying the skies.
By mid afternoon, Don had a few jumps in, and so he decided to take a drive to the local diner to grab some lunch. Robby and Lynn, two local kids, joined him for the ride in his new corvette.
Robby was a young teenager, and he and his family lived in a house just off of the airport. His family was very involved with the club. His older sisters dated several of the members, his mother often made them sandwiches, and they usually left their gear at the family home to use again the following weekend. Robby spent a lot of his growing up years watching them skydive and looking up to them. He would eventually become an avid skydiver himself.
The diner wasn't too far away, maybe 10-15 minutes. It was where you would find most of the members, as well as friends, after a full day of skydiving.
Don was tired this day. He had been working all night and had only caught about 3 hours sleep in the last 24. At some point, he began to nod off while driving. Lynn noticed and quickly woke him. Upon hearing his name, he immediately came to, steadying the wheel and shaking it off.
The afternoon came and went, and it was now the sunset load. Don was up for this set, and so he climbed onto the plane with Ed Smith, Walter Ashcroft, and Charles Cruthers.
When I was growing up, I remember my mother told me that the pilot, who I now know was Bill Campbell, upon noticing his fatique, had asked Donald not to jump. But Donald said he had to, that the crowd below was expecting him, and that it was, afterall, the last jump of the day.
Since speaking with others that were there, this now makes sense to me. I know understand that they were to form a star formation, which would require all four members, and I believe Donald felt he needed to be there for his teammates.
From this point, I have varied accounts...
I have one account from a witness that knew Donald, and said that he saw the entire incident. He said that the four members jumped, made a star formation, then split apart. From there, Don just came down.... completely steady, feet to earth it sounded like... but steady... It was as if he nodded off... only he nodded off too long. He never opened his chute. He saw him until he fell down past the trees.
The Kansas City Star told a different account. It reads that at 9,000 feet, Bill attempted relative work (meaning, to make contact) with Smith, but failed. It further reads that at 3,000 feet, Bill became unstable. He became disoriented and out-of-control and began tumbling. Smith and the others pulled their rip cords at 2,500 feet and landed normally. Bill was to pull his cord at the same time.
I would like to mention that the above information gathered in the Kansas City Star article ("Veteran* Skydiver Dies In Jump" ~ August 5, 1968) is quoted by a W. A. Weinburg, who it states was a safety inspector for the United States Parachute Association. Due to this, I am unsure if he was an actual witness (which I doubt), or was sent out to perform an investigation (which seems more likely), and in doing so, this is what he was told by those he questioned.
The Kansas City Star goes on to explain how they had featured an article on Bill & Smith just weeks before. Then, in closing, it gives the account of a witness to whom claimed to have seen the entire thing... I am not going to print that here. If you want to read it, the microfilm is available through UKCM.
*UPDATE, 06/14/01: I have decided to share the article here afterall. To read it, please go to the "News Reaches Home" page.*
My mother had mentioned that it took about 6 hours for her brother to be found. The first account witness said the same thing. The Kansas City Star said 3 hours.
The Kansas City Star said he had landed in a milo field near Tonganoxie. He died with his parachute unopened. It states that his body was found at 11 o'clock p.m. on the farm of _______ _______ , about seven miles east and a mile south of Tonganoxie, after a 3-hour search by Leavenworth County deputy sheriffs, Kansas highway patrolmen, and volunteers.
The first witness, to whom I spoke with personally, said that the police and others had searched and searched, but to no avail. Finally, they allowed him to help in their search (due to his not being 18 at the time, they were against the idea until they had no choice but to allow him to show them). He had seen where Don fell down, past the trees. He led them in the direction, and in doing so, they came upon him.
At this point in our conversation, I paused. I was hesitant to hear the details. I wasn't sure where to go with it. I only knew I had searched long and hard for someone to tell me about my uncle, and here I was, speaking with the very person to whom had found him.
He went on, explaining that it wasn't as one imagines. How prior to him seeing Don, he had had bad dreams, as we all do at some point, of falling... He said that he was actually surprised when he came upon him. Don was intact, lying on his pack. He said that his helmet was broken up, cracked in several places, but still in it's entire. He said that you could recognize him as Don Bill if you knew him.
"He looked dead, but he looked like Don."
Donald had a funeral in or outside Kansas City before his body was sent home to Connecticut. My mother said that her and her parent's stayed with friends of his, only she can't remember their names.
Other than that, I only know that he was engaged to be married. I do not know her name. Any information would be greatly appreciated.
Finally, I am searching for a man by the name of Rick Sorenson. Please let him know my email is now firstname.lastname@example.org and I would love to hear from him - 03/23/04. (I am sorry I did not follow through originally. I have tried to contact you since, but no luck.)
*I am not sure how the Kansas City Star was using the term "Veteran" when they used it in the article title about my uncle's death.
Veteran of War? - Donald was in Vietnam prior to this (The Air Force actually paid for his head stone -- which I think is commendable -- and on it, it reads **Vietnam, AIC, 328th Combat Supp. Grp)
Veteran of Skydiving? - They were more than likely refering to his number of jumps (over fifty), which at the time, made one a pro of skydiving. I have learned through talking with those that were skydiving at the time or associated with it in some capacity, that at this time, we're talking 1968, to have over 30 jumps was a lot -- like 300 today. The equipment alone was reason not to jump too often. Much of it was military issued. It caused burning marks and bruises, was completely uncomfortable -- Nothing like that of today. Also, skydiving simply wasn't as available to people. It was a new sport to the United States, let us remember. Those doing it at this time, they were pioneers of the sport in this country. I have great respect for them. They made the sport what it is today.
Special Thanks to "Robby" whose words have meant so much to my family & I. The memory of your first trip up in the plane with them was particularly moving.