Published: 06:00, 12 August 2021
| Updated: 08:30, 12 August 2021
On an icy cold and foggy afternoon in Milwaukee, a light aircraft carrying members of the Iowa State cross-country team - including Ashford's Julie Rose - left the runway for home. The team had hours earlier secured second place at the national championships.
The hazardous weather conditions over the American Midwest that evening saw their flight diverted to Des Moines airport - but it did not make it. It was a tragedy that claimed seven lives, and shocked an entire state, as Rhys Griffiths reports...
"Every August prior to school starting the cross-country team would go up to northern Wisconsin," Bonnie Sons explains from her home in Shorewood, Minnesota.
"Coach Renko had some property up there. There was this itty-bitty, eight-by-ten foot shack that was where we would cook and make our meals, but there was no running water.
"There was a big platform that Ron would pitch this big army tent and we had all these cots, if you didn't know better you would think you came across an army barracks or something. The beauty of it was there was no telephones, no electricity, no TV, nothing.
"So in my freshman year when I went to camp I did not know one person, except Ron, but otherwise I did not know a soul. So the beauty of training camp was you had this 10 days before school started where you would get to know your teammates, you bonded with them, you ran, we worked out three times a day, we cooked meals together, just spent the entire day together.
"Because it was so rustic you were just forced to get to know people and really bond with people. And get some good training."
The 1985 Iowa State cross-country team had something special. Under the tutelage of their head coach, Ron Renko, they were making real progress. Good things were around the corner.
Renko had assembled a bunch of young women who shared a love of running, scouting out prospects from US high schools as well as talents from across the pond in the UK.
The home-grown members of the team were joined by Sue Baxter, a runner from Brentwood in Essex said to be well on her way to reaching her goal of running in the Commonwealth Games and representing her country in the 1988 Olympic Games, and Julie Rose, a former Highworth pupil whose exploits for Ashford Athletic Club had won her a scholarship at Iowa State and the chance to run for the university's Cyclones athletics team.
According to the local newspaper, the Des Moines Register, the squad had adopted Matthew Wilder's 1983 hit Break My Stride as their anthem, its chorus motivating them through all those long hours of training: 'Ain’t nothing gonna break my stride/Nobody’s gonna slow me down, oh-no/I got to keep on movin.'
And move they did. The team went into the NCAA Cross Country Championship meet in Milwaukee on November 25, 1985, feeling confident - they believed a top five place was in their sights.
"Ron always believed in us," Bonnie recalls of her teammates and their coach.
"He thought realistically we could do top ten if we had a great day, maybe get to fifth place, but he kept telling us ‘you can do this, you can do this, you can run with the other teams’. He just made us believe that we could do it.
"We were out on a cool down when one of the coaches, the assistant coach, was waving to us and saying ‘come over here, come over here, we got second, we got second’, and I think all of us were in shock.
"We knew we ran a solid race, but we had no idea that we had gotten second, so when we found out we had second we were so ecstatic and so overjoyed, and really in disbelief.
"Normally after meets we would go on a cool down, go back to our hotel, shower, go out to eat, and then head home back to Iowa State.
"But at this meet we decided that the planes that we flew to Milwaukee needed to fly the basketball team, I believe they were going some place in Illinois, so we decided, you know what, we’re just going to grab the trophy, get to the airport, fly home, and then celebrate when we get home.
"And obviously that never happened."
The toughest, fiercest, strongest person on the team
When news of Julie's death broke here in Ashford, tributes immediately began coming in from across the town and wider sporting community.
The 21-year-old had stood out since she began running as a schoolgirl with Ashford Athletic Club, going on to win the national indoor 3,000m title and securing a scholarship to study in America as a college athlete.
Speaking to the Kentish Express at the time of the disaster, her former coach Cliff Temple said: "There has not been another runner like Julie in the events she competed in.
"She had the style which was emulated by others who admired her. They wore the same running gear, tracksuits and shoes just so they could look like her.
"Unfortunately she suffered from a number of injuries in recent years but that only made her more determined to come back and prove she could win races."
When talking about her teammate, Bonnie makes a point of referencing this very grit and determination which made Julie such a strong competitor.
"Julie was the toughest, fiercest, strongest person on the team," she said.
"She struggled with injuries during her time at Iowa State, I know she had several foot surgeries, I remember she had this big, gnarly scar on the top of her foot. But she never gave up.
"She trained and was tough as nails, it was like something would click when she would run and she just became this fierce competitor and that's what made her great.
"She never, ever, ever gave up. Julie was, off the race course, a very matter-of-fact person.
"She kinda told it like it was, but yet she was loveable, she was funny, she was the perfect fit for our team because we had a lot of people who were kinda quiet, and more reserved, and Julie added that bubbly, lots of energy, vivacious personality to the mix."
Waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting
One after another, three Iowa State light aircraft left Milwaukee, at roughly 20-30 minute intervals.
The intention had been to fly back to Ames, home of the university, but the deteriorating weather conditions meant a change to the flight plan and a new destination of Des Moines, the state capital, some 30 miles or so to the south.
There were seven people aboard the third plane, a Rockwell International S500 Strike Commander, as it left the ground in Milwaukee.
Pilot Burton Watkins had been director of the Iowa State University Flight Service since 1972, establishing and coordinating annual conferences held at the college for the aviation industry, and later receiving the State Aeronautics Commission Certificate of Recognition in 1968 for outstanding achievement in promoting aviation.
His passengers as the flight departed General Mitchell International Airport at 3.17pm and climbed into the skies over Wisconsin were coaches Ron Renko and Pat Moynihan, student trainer Stephanie Streit and runners Sheryl Maahs, Susan Baxter and Julie Rose.
Teammates Bonnie Sons and Tami Colby would ordinarily have been with them, but by chance both were on the second plane which departed for Des Moines at 2.50pm.
"I actually got my pilot's licence when I was at Iowa State," Bonnie said, "so I would routinely sit in the other front seat next to the pilot when we flew to meets, and wear a headset and just kinda listen and observe because I was learning how to fly and knew how to fly and it was educational for me.
"So I knew [pilot] Bill Brock and I knew he would let me sit in the front seat and put the headset on because I had flown with him during some of my training.
"I said ‘which plane are you flying’ and he pointed to the second plane, so I ran out to the third plane and grabbed my bag and put it on the second plane and jumped on, so that's how I ended up on the second plane.
"I know Tami was not pleased with her race that day, and Ron, after your race, he likes to go through and say here’s what worked and here’s what didn’t, and I think she just didn’t want to rehash her race."
The three planes climbed above the low cloud and headed west across the plains towards Iowa. At altitude the sun shone brightly. Below, however, the weather was growing worse.
"I vividly remember when we came in for our approach we were flying in instrument flight rules, where you’re just flying in fog basically, you are in clouds, you can’t see out of the aircraft," Bonnie recalls.
"I remember Bill asking me to look out at the wings and he asked me if I could see any ice on the wings, and I remember him flipping the switch to break the ice.
"And I just remember him saying ‘watch for the runway lights’. I just remember holding on to the dashboard and peering, looking for those lights, because I could sense that he was a little bit stressed, I knew the weather was not real good.
"So I’m watching and watching and watching, and Bill is flying and we’re descending and all of a sudden I see the runway lights and I can tell we’re high.
"But we knew the runway at Des Moines was long and we had a small plane, so we proceeded and landed safely."
Bonnie and the rest of the passengers aboard the second plane disembarked onto a runway she remembers was "just like a skating rink", so chill was that November evening three days before the Thanksgiving holiday.
Having been sat up front and listening in on radio chatter during the flight, Bonnie knew to expect the third and final aircraft to come in some 30 minutes or so after them.
"Once we landed we were in this little building just waiting, the men’s team was there, we then joined them, and we were waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting.
"I just remember thinking ‘OK, it’s been 30 minutes, now it’s been 40 minutes’ and I don’t remember exactly how much time went by until somebody came out and was asking for the coaches, they wanted to talk to the coaches.
"I could just tell by the tone of their voice and the look on their face that something was not right. But at that point I did not know what was going on."
I can't do anything, I'm in the trees now
At 5.41pm the pilot of the third plane, registration N81589, radioed air traffic control and said: "Des Moines, 589, I seem to have some real trouble here, ah, I’m ah I’m in severe turbulence."
Watkins was advised to climb and maintain 3,000 feet. "I'm trying," he replied, "but I’m not doing very well."
According to an accident investigation report by the federal National Transportation Safety Board, the last communication from the doomed craft simply stated: "I can't do anything, I'm in the trees now."
The wreckage path started approximately two city blocks west of the crash site - the front yard of a suburban home in Des Moines, at the intersection of Shriver Avenue and Country Club Boulevard. All seven crew and passengers were lost.
Their fellow teammates waiting on the ground at the airport would soon learn the terrible scale of the tragedy which had just occurred.
"I remember the coaches," Bonnie said. "The men’s coach was there, and one of the athletic assistant directors, and I can’t recall if it was one of those two who came and got me and then they said ‘the plane went down’.
"They wanted to know exactly who was on that plane, and I knew Charlene [Letzring] and Jill [Slettedahl] had driven home with their parents, so I knew that they weren’t on the plane.
"I knew Stephanie had a commercial flight, but since there was a spot open on the university plane coming back she jumped on,."
A fitting and lasting memorial
"It wasn't exactly clear what had happened," former Iowa State student Mike Bell - and childhood friend of Sheryl Maahs - recalls of the night of the disaster.
"Many people were eating dinner, or beginning to study, and as word trickled in we heard a plane had gone down. We were greatly concerned, but we had hope beyond belief that it wasn't her plane.
"We did not know until late that it was her plane. It was tough.
"That team had just done so tremendously well, and so when that plane went down... Iowa's a small state, everybody knows everybody here. It was pretty traumatic."
Mike now lives just a few blocks away from the crash site - where a memorial to the seven who lost their lives was unveiled in 2018.
The successful effort to create a lasting, physical commemoration of the tragedy close to the spot where the plane came down was driven in large part by Tim Lane, who like Mike lives close to the site on the west side of Des Moines.
"In October of 2015, I and another member of the planning committee for Dam to Dam, a 20K of note here in the Midwest, were biking near the intersection of Country Club and Ingersoll and I was trying to remember how long it had been since the tragedy," Tim explained by email.
"Upon discovering that we were approaching the 30th year, I felt that our planning committee for Dam to Dam needed to do something in recognition of their memory.
"My great great aunt, Carrie Lane Chapman Catt, was a suffragist and that may be why I am quick to note historical discrepancies - that is, if this had been a men’s team there would be a movie and book by now."
A memorial service was arranged for the 30th anniversary, and three years later the permanent memorial - a boulder carrying a plaque engraved with the victims' names and a stick-figure running girl that became a symbol for the 1985 team - was unveiled in the grounds of the Temple B’Nai Jeshurun across the street from the crash site.
"Tim Lane, who really is the person who should get all the credit for getting this group of people together, is a wonderful guy," Mike said from his office in Des Moines.
"Before Tim brought us all together, no one really knew where it [the crash site] was. Was it that set of trees or that set of trees, was it that yard.
"So at least we have been able to identify the location and put a little plaque up there."
Her legacy will obviously live on
All who spoke about the crash insisted that, although a lasting memorial at the site is a poignant reminder, the memory of those who died should live on in a positive spirit, particularly through future generations of runners.
In this cause, Coach Renko's 'running girl' doodle has become something of an emblem for the team and its lasting legacy.
"He was a tremendous guy, just had a heart of gold," Bonnie said of Ron Renko, who was inducted into the Iowa State athletics Hall of Fame in 2005.
"He lived and breathed running, and had a very strong faith, and he was just so passionate about you as a person and you as a runner.
"You would go into his office and he would sit and go through your race plan, if it was an upcoming race, if you’d just run a race he would go through ‘here’s what you did well, here’s what we need to work on, here’s what we’re going to do next time’, and he was just a fantastic coach.
"If we would go on any sort of run, whether it was at training camp in northern Wisconsin, or if we were running just on the rural roads, he would paint the ‘running girl’ stick figure on the road at the mile markers or it would be on correspondence or any letter or team memo.
"That was just his tagline, that was just on virtually anything that Ron wrote."
Mike Bell is now one of the organisers of an initiative called 'I am a Running Girl', which organises fun events for girls and young women to get their first taste of the sport.
Here in Kent, the legacy of the 1985 team also lives on, with generations of up-and-coming athletes competing at the Ashford athletics stadium which carries the name of Julie Rose.
"I just couldn’t bring myself to go to the crash site," Bonnie said of the years since that tragic night in November. "It’s like part of me wanted to know but part of me just wanted to try and forget about it or suppress it.
"But when they did the memorial, obviously I went there and you realise what a beautiful setting, it was on somebody’s front lawn by these big trees, and is a very peaceful setting.
"I think they just wanted to make sure that the people who were on that plane are never forgotten, they are always remembered.The memorial is just a very beautiful and simple reminder of something tragic that happened there, but also to remember the beautiful souls of the people who were on that plane.”
Recalling the aftermath of the crash, she said: "We had no way to contact or reach out to Julie or Sue’s parents, I have seen Sheryl’s parents a few times since the accident at some of these reunions or gatherings, but there’s a piece of me that just really wanted to reach out to their parents and tell them what wonderful teammates and people they were, so that’s one of my regrets.
"But I am glad that Julie has a stadium named after her and her legacy will obviously live on in her hometown."