Wichita State filmmakers explore aftermath, trauma of 1965 plane crash

  •  Dr. Kevin Harrison, Ricardo Harris and Kenneth Hawkins collaborated on a documentary chronicling the aftermath of the 1965 plane crash and fire that killed 30 people near the Wichita State University campus.
  • The documentary debuts on June 25 at Piatt Park and other showings are in the works.
  • The documentarians want to examine how racism and segregation amplified the trauma for residents of the neighborhood.
Documentary interviewCourtesy photo
Dr. Kevin Harrison interviews former Wichita council woman Lavonta Williams, who lived in the Piatt neighborhood in 1965. Her brother witnessed the plane crash and was taken to the hospital after suffering burns.

The black granite memorial in Piatt Park describes the tragedy of January 1965 and lists the names of those who died in the predominately Black neighborhood.  

For Dr. Kevin Harrison, director of diversity, equity and inclusion for the Cohen Honors College at Wichita State University, the story of that day is one that deserves more discussion and examination to understand.  

Harrison grew up in the Wichita neighborhood around 20th and Piatt Street, less than a mile from campus. The memorial park marks the site where a U.S. Air Force Boeing KC-135 refueling tanker crashed, shortly after takeoff on the morning Jan. 16, 1965. The crash and resulting explosion and fires caused the deaths of 30 people, numerous injuries and the destruction of 10 homes. According to news reports, around 31,000 gallons of jet fuel covered the area with flames and smoke. 

“I don’t think you heal unless you talk about things,” Harrison said. “I see a community that still hasn’t healed.” 

Dr. Kevin Harrison

Kevin Harrison

On June 25, the 80-minute documentary film “The Silent Cries of Unheard Ghetto Children” will debut at Piatt Park (2037 N. Piatt). The documentary begins at 8 p.m. and admission is free.

The film is the work of Harrison and fellow documentarians and long-time friends Ricardo Harris, executive director of Wichita GEAR UP, and independent producer Kenneth Hawkins. A $7,418 grant from the Kansas Humanities Council funds the project. The documentary’s name comes from the death of a pregnant woman and her child that day. 

WSU Omega Psi Phi fraternity is a partner in the project and its members will help with discussion panels planned for future showings. Robert Weems Jr., Wichita State’s Willard W. Garvey distinguished professor of business history, is a project consultant and will participate in some of the discussions. 

The crash, which killed 23 residents of the neighborhood and seven crew members, loomed over Harrison’s childhood. Much of the death and injury came from the fires started by the plane’s fuel.   

“We know a plane crashed,” he said. “We know 30 people died. We don’t know those people.” 

Harrison, born in 1969, remembers the topic as one rarely discussed. And the park, built upon the site of the crash, was rarely used. While a student at Wichita East High School, the idea to explore that event began to percolate. Years later, a conversation on the park’s basketball court with neighborhood people who experienced that day kicked off the project. 

The documentary, Harrison said, describes how racism and segregation affected recovery for people in the neighborhood. Inadequate aid and services, residents say, limited the healing.  

“I’m looking at the trauma,” he said. “I’m looking at the racial segregation. I’m looking at the perspectives of people who I don’t think were really heard and understood.” 

Harrison said one of the interview subjects declined to talk on video because she did not want to relive that day. Another said she had never talked about that day. One said their parents never talked about that day. One woman said she had not discussed the crash and the aftermath with her husband.  

“These voices of the Black neighborhood have often been unheard,” Harrison said. “Like one of the victims told me, ‘Nobody came to see about us. No doctors. No psychologists.’ I’m hoping I can help people deal with the trauma.” 

Harrison, also an assistant teaching professor in the Cohen Honors College, said interviews with local Christian pastors delve into the spiritual aspect of the aftermath. 

“They talked about spiritual faith as part of the healing and some of the interviews we have mirror that,” Harrison said.

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