Memories of Evansville plane crash continue to haunt players' families, friends
Associated Press File Photo Crew members search the wreckage of chartered airliner N51071, a DC-3 that had crashed in Evansville on Dec. 13, 1977. The crash killed all 29 people aboard, including Munster graduate Ray Comandella, who was a freshman on the Purple Aces' basketball team.

Diane Comandella was baking for her brother Ray and watching "Happy Days" the night of Dec. 13, 1977.

"I was expecting him to come home (from college) and I thought I'd better get started making Christmas cookies," she said.

Then came the news bulletin.

"Why, on national TV, would you see a news flash about Evansville, Indiana?" Diane wondered.

A sudden knock at the door changed the lives of her family forever.

"When you open the door and a police officer is standing there, you know they're coming to tell you something," Diane said.

A DC-3 charter plane carrying 29 people, including the Evansville men's basketball team, had crashed 90 seconds after takeoff, killing everyone aboard. Ray Comandella, a highly recruited 6-foot-9 freshman from Munster, was among the 14 players who perished a few miles from campus.

The school was in its first year of Division I basketball, and the team was leaving Evansville that night for a game at Middle Tennessee State in Murfreesboro, Tenn., the next day. Ironically, in years past, the Purple Aces had traveled by bus, but new coach Bobby Watson wanted his players to travel in class.

'We all miss him tremendously'

Today marks the 32nd anniversary of one of college sports' most devastating tragedies. Ray Comandella would have been 50 now.

An engineering major with a bright future, Comandella was excited to make the Evansville traveling team. Two opponents -- Indiana State and DePaul -- were led by future NBA stars Larry Bird and Dave Corzine.

Around campus, "Cool Ray" was known for his outgoing personality and being fiercely independent.

"I'd like to think he would be married (now) with a family," said Diane, her voice cracking. "I don't think I can say any more about that."

Diane Comandella has a sister Linda in Arlington Heights. Their father, Frank, died 12 years ago, and their mother, Louise, still lives in Munster and turned 84 on Dec. 11 -- two days before the anniversary of when Ray died.

"He called her on her birthday, so her birthday is a tough day because that's the phone call she's looking for every year," Diane said.

Louise Comandella was emotionally unable to be interviewed for this story.

"Ray's friends have been really wonderful to my mom. They stop over, they call her, it's been very heartwarming," Diane said. "Once you hit the holiday season, it's tough. Everybody's happy and when you get closer to the 13th of December, it gets harder and harder because you know what's coming."

Diane hopes the memory of Ray and his Evansville team lives on with each generation, and so far, it has. Locally, her last name still raises some eyebrows if she's out shopping or uses her credit card.

"The world would've been a better place had that plane not crashed and killed Ray and his teammates," said Dave Hunt, former high school classmate and dear friend of Comandella. "We all miss him tremendously.

"He was a great kid and would've been an even greater adult and parent."

A strange sequence of events

Joe Otis has a vivid recollection of the Evansville tragedy, having served as coach Ken Rochlitz's first assistant at Valparaiso University that season. Otis, in fact, had recruited Comandella.

The 1970 Valpo High grad still gets a lump in his throat whenever the crash is discussed and points out an eerie coincidence he will never forget involving both college teams.

"It was our first year in Division I basketball, we were playing the University of Missouri, and we used the same charter service out of Indianapolis that Evansville was using," Otis said.

"They flew to Porter County Airport to pick us up and fly us to Columbia, Missouri, that morning. Then they were flying back to Evansville and they were going to take the Evansville team to Middle Tennessee State for their practice the day before their game. And then they were flying to Columbia to bring us back."

A foggy, rain-soaked night quickly scrapped those plans, however.

"We encountered bad weather and couldn't get to Columbia because of visibility," Otis said. "We were forced to land in St. Louis, where we were grounded for two or three hours before we finally decided to drive to Columbia."

The Evansville team was given a substitute plane -- the one that crashed.

VU coaches, players, the trainer and radio crew comprised the same manifest as the ill-fated Evansville flight. That led to United Press International erroneously reporting that both teams were on the same DC-3.

"It was a confusing nightmare of events and far more nightmarish for the people who lost loved ones," Otis said. "It created an enormous amount of panic back here in Valpo when word first got out."

When the VU team returned home and touched down at Porter County Airport, Otis recalled everyone aboard letting out a deafening cheer as the plane came to a complete stop.

"And then there was this silence within seconds," he said. "Like it was selfish and disrespectful on our part.

"But after what happened (to Evansville), it was really, really nerve-racking getting on a plane like the plane they were in and from the same company and flying back home."

In another eerie turn of events, Evansville player David Furr had been sidelined with an ankle injury and served as the team statistician but was not on the doomed flight.

Two weeks later, Furr and his 16-year-old brother died in a car wreck.

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The players

Ray Comandella, Fr.

Warren Alston, Fr.

Mike Duff, Fr.

Kraig Heckendorn, Fr.

Michael Joyner, Fr.

Barney Lewis, Fr.

Greg Smith, Fr.

Mark Siegel, Fr.

Keith Moon, So.

Stephen Miller, Jr.

Bryan Taylor, Jr.

Kevin Kingston, Sr.

John Ed Washington, Sr.

Tony Winburn, Sr.

School personnel

Bobby Watson, coach

Bob Hudson, athletic business manager

Charles Shike, comptroller

Gregory Knipping, sports information director

Student personnel

Jeff Bohnert, manager

Mark Kirkpatrick, manager

Mark Kniese, trainer


Maurice "Maury" King, owner of Moutoux Furniture

Charles Goad, owner of Goad Equipment Co.

Radio announcer

Marv Bates

Crew, airline management

Bill Hartford, general manager, National Jet Service of Indianapolis

Ty Van Pham, pilot

Gaston Ruiz, co-pilot

Pam Smith, flight attendant

James Stewart, president, National Jet Service of Indianapolis