(KFVS) - Ozark Airlines highlighted its jets in the company's 1973 television commercial "Big on That," but Heartland travelers were more accustomed to the sights and sounds of Ozark's twin-engine turboprop fleet. On July 23rd of that year, one of those Fairchild-Hiller turboprops took to the skies as flight 809, service to St. Louis.
"They were very excited," said Donna Diebold Joplin. "It was grandmother's first flight and she had never been on a plane."
Joplin was 17 years old when her grandparents, John and Ruth Diebold, boarded the flight in Cape Girardeau. The Diebold's daughter, Johnetta McConnell, saw them off.
"We put them on the plane, my two sons and I," McConnell recalled. "They were like 9 and 10."
Former East Prairie High School and Southeast Missouri State football standout John Glass also boarded in Cape. Glass and his wife Barbara were expecting their first child.
"He had a great disposition, never met a stranger," said Glass' sister, Betty Futch.
The seats of Flight 809 quickly filled with more local names and faces. Bill Sexton of Jackson boarded in Cape. Pam Rutledge and her mother Havana, both of Murray, boarded in Paducah, along with Page Stady of Cairo. Roger Darrell "Whitey" Mitchell boarded in Marion.
"He was just a great kid, very compassionate, caring," recalls Mitchell's older brother Ron.
Ron Mitchell tells me Whitey was so smart, he actually struggled in school, then had trouble when he first joined the Air Force.
"And then the next thing you know, he's a platoon leader and he went to medical lab technician school," Mitchell said proudly.
Other passengers boarding with Mitchell in Marion included 13-year-old first-time flyer Mark Trevor Willhite, insurance company manager and Marion Rotary member Duane Mayberry, and union representative and father of six, Bert Hall of Murphysboro.
But, there was a sense for many that something was wrong.
One of John Diebold's grandsons didn't like the way the sky looked that afternoon.
"He looked up at daddy and said 'Grandpa what happens when you get up in the clouds and it storms up there?' And Daddy says, 'Oh you just fly above it," McConnell said.
For Ron Mitchell, that "something strange" came the night before the flight, as he prepared to lose yet another chess game to his brother.
"I've always thought it was a strange coincidence, his last evening here we played to a stalemate, which never should have happened," Mitchell said.
"We, I believe, got the information in a phone call," recalled former Heartland News Anchor Mike Shain.
Less than 30 minutes after its last stop in Marion, Flight 809 came face to face with a severe thunderstorm.
"Ozark 809, it looks like a heavy rain shower moving right across the approach end of the runway now," said the Lambert controller, quoted in the National Transportation Safety Board's report on the crash. "Roger, we see it," replied the first officer, in the flight's final transmission.
"We checked with the airport and sure enough, Ozark was down," said Shain.
The turboprop dropped quickly according to that report, taking at least one lightning strike before disappearing, one witness said, "into the rain and trees". It hit the ground just two miles outside Lambert airport.
"My dad had called and said he heard about a plane going down in St. Louis and he said it sounds like Whitey's flight," recalled Ron Mitchell.
"We were in the living room, and I believe it was Mike Shain that actually came on the news, it was a news flash that said an Ozark airliner had crashed in St. Louis," Donna Diebold Joplin said. "And of course, my heart just stopped."
As the news of 809's crash slowly came out, families like the Diebolds became desperate for details.
"My brother went out to the airport and they had themselves locked in out there," Johnetta McConnell said. "They wouldn't talk to us."
Unaware her brother was on that Ozark flight, Betty Futch watched St. Louis news coverage of the crash from her home in Mitchell, Ill.
"We were thinking how horrible that is that people are watching this on TV and not knowing if their family's on there or not," Futch recalled.
By 10 o'clock that night, Mike Shain had the victims' names to read on the news, even before some families had been notified.
"I sat there reading those names," Shain said. "And you know what? You almost wanted to cry. You almost wanted to cry."
Crash scene photos show the damage in heart-breaking detail. The Fairchild-Hiller turboprop broke apart, with the cockpit remaining intact, but the passenger cabin ripped open at impact. Both the captain and first officer survived, as did four passengers thrown clear from the wreckage.
Among the 38 killed, Betty Futch's brother, Johnetta McConnell's parents, and Ron Mitchell's brother.
Ever since the day Donna Diebold Joplin's grandparents died, the same question nagged at her heart.
"I've always wondered did they know the plane was going down? Were they frightened? Did they suffer?" she asked out loud.
Diebold Joplin decided just last year to seek out the answer to that question. She took to the internet and turned up a surprising wealth of information including the National Transportation Safety Board report on the Ozark 809 crash.
"And I was like, oh wow, here are actually some details because I've always wondered did they know the plane was going down? Were they frightened? Did they suffer?" she asked.
According to the report, Ozark 809 most likely went down because of "the aircraft's encounter with a downdraft following the captain's decision to initiate and continue an instrument approach into a thunderstorm." And that the captain's decision was probably "influenced by the lack of a timely issuance of a severe weather warning by the National Weather Service."
The crash was deemed "non survivable with respect to the passengers. Four passengers survived because they were thrown clear, without colliding with any objects that could inflict more serious injuries."
"I did find out a lot. Some was kind of horrific, but there was one comforting thing," Joplin said.
That comfort came from a newspaper article, where one of the four surviving passengers later said "there was no panic. I don't think anybody knew it was going to happen."
"It just was so fast and they didn't know and that was a comfort to me, knowing they didn't know. They really didn't know," said Joplin.
But, the Diebold family's discovery didn't just stay their own. As I researched Ozark 809, I began tracking down the families forever changed by it. And as they sent me pictures and shared stories about their loved ones, I sent them the information Donna tracked down.
"This is the flag that covered his casket," Ron Mitchell said as he showed me the precious remembrance of his brother, Whitey, a 21-year-old Air Force Sergeant at the time.
Mitchell read through the information Donna found before we sat down to talk.
"Actually, I learned more from that report than I'd ever heard before," he said.
But, Mitchell admits, some of that information broke his heart. He says he'd always imagined his brother surviving the initial impact, then helping fellow passengers before he died.
"With Whitey's medical training, I had visions of him going around helping people, helping survivors of the crash, and just refused to believe that he was one of those that perished," Mitchell said.
Still, Mitchell appreciates the Diebolds for reminding all of us what a tremendous impact Ozark 809 had on our region. He still lives on the land where his brother Whitey went horseback riding each day of that last visit home.
"We had just bought this place about a month before he died. And looking back, I'm very grateful and thankful that I had this place and that horse for him to come to," he said.
Barbara Glass and Betty Futch can laugh when they tell me about an extraordinary husband and brother.
"He was one with the spirit and determination and the personality to persevere," said Futch. "You see that in his daughter?" I asked. "Yes, a little stubbornness too," Futch said. Across the table, Barbara Glass laughs and nods in agreement.
"I hope that it helps them like it has us to kind of, it's finally some closure even though they've been gone 36 years," said Donna Diebold Joplin.
Click here to find web extra biographies of
Along with the biographies of those victims named in this report, here is more information on passengers of Flight 809 with Heartland ties:
Bobby Boucher, teenage son of a Paducah Doctor
Robert Fletcher, listed in published reports as being from Paducah
Mrs. Gerald Shifflett, from Richmond Virginia but in the process of moving to Sikeston at time of the crash
Mrs. Jane Davidson Doyle of Knoxville, TN, listed in published reports as formerly living in Anna
William Wafford of Charlotte, NC, listed in published reports as the brother of Mrs. Rita Harrell of Mounds
Mrs. James (Barbara Lee Turner)Robertson of Crestwood, MO, listed in published reports as visiting her parents in Pulaski, IL