Watching from the front of his store on Highway 12 in the small town of Mina, S.Dak., was Clyde Virgil. The shop, named The Fort, is one of those general stores where a man can pick up a snow shovel, a box of worms, a quart of milk, a tank of gas and easy conversation all in one stop. A battered black-and-white television sits atop a display case. Virgil and two friends, John Beck and Ken Dunn, had watched the news reports about the Lear on the set's one viewable channel. Hearing that the plane was coming their way, they went outside to see if they could spot it. Virgil took along his large field glasses, which he uses to watch deer or other game in the clearing across the road. "It turned out the plane was easy to see," Virgil says. "These big contrails were coming from the jet, and the military jets were flying all around it. I watched for about 10 minutes, and, really, it became boring. I had just about decided to go back inside, but I said, 'Let's take one more look.' That's when it started to fall.
"It went down a bit, and then some last bit of fuel must have kicked in because it straightened out for a moment. Then it went down again and didn't stop. It looked like it was flying straight into the ground."
In Orlando, Hershiser and his wife were at the Fraleys' house, where they had rushed to comfort Dixie when they heard the news about the plane. Friends and relatives of each of the other families had gathered at their respective houses. At one point Hershiser went into Robert Fraley's workout room. Fraley was a physical fitness buff, exercising at 5:30 every morning. Painted on the wall in large letters was a quote. Hershiser memorized it: "We must care for our bodies as though they were going to live forever, but we must care for our souls as if we were going to the tomorrow."
The hole the plane made when it landed in Jon Hoffman's field has been opened again. He hired a man with a backhoe to fill it after the NTSB investigators left, but the families of the victims asked him to dig it out again so they could have someone search through the dirt in the spring for any remaining mementoes. Hoffman honored the request, so the dirt sits in five or six piles, and the hole is about 40 feet wide again and eight feet deep. Water is at the bottom on this day, left over from a recent rain.
A faded memorial wreath stands on a tripod, purchased by donations from the many television crews that assembled around the hole. A beaten-down dirt road where there never had been a road is another leftover of the media attention. Hoffman counted 21 television trucks in his field the day after the crash.
"There were 400 cows in the field when the plane came down," he says. "That's how I learned the plane was on my property. One of the guys who works for me came to where we were hunting and said, 'You'd better come quick, a plane has crashed in the middle of your cows.' I got there, and they were all lined up against the fence as far from the hole as possible."
Pieces of the plane still are in a hangar at Aberdeen Airport. Other pieces have been taken to other spots around the country to be tested and analyzed by NTSB investigators. The violence of the crash destroyed much of the plane. The bodies of the pilots and passengers, frozen solid before impact, fared no better.
The cause has yet to be determined. It probably never will be determined to the satisfaction of everyone involved. Soon the NTSB will release a public docket of all the test results and other information it has gathered. The five-man board then will sift through these findings and vote on a probable cause. A source close to the investigation says nothing definitive has been established, no plane part found to be the culprit.
"How do you figure it?" James Watkins says. "I suppose there are two major theories. One is that something went wrong with the oxygen system and everybody fell asleep. I don't buy that. Six people were on that plane, different sizes, different physiologies. The pilots were a man and a woman. Would everybody pass out at the exact same time? Wouldn't somebody take longer and react when he saw something happening? Not a button was pushed. Not a dial was turned. If you were in the cockpit, even if you were dying, wouldn't you have reached out and grabbed something, anything? I think you would, except....
"And here's the second theory: that something violent happened, like the bulkhead splitting open. That's a rare situation. It's maybe happened five or six times in the history of aviation. They say you have 10 seconds to react when it happens, but what if you're incapacitated immediately? Mike Kling gave classes in the Air Force on how to handle oxygen deprivation. I have to think it was something violent."