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1960 Cal Poly plane crash survivors recall life and death in Toledo

COLUMN ONE

The football team had traveled to Ohio and lost. They would return to San Luis Obispo with even bigger losses: 16 players were among those who died in the crash.

October 29, 2010|By Diane Pucin
  • Cal Poly San Luis Obispo faculty and students attend a memorial service in November 1960 for 16 players on the school football team who died in a plane crash en route home from a game in Toledo, Ohio.
Cal Poly San Luis Obispo faculty and students attend a memorial service… (Associated Press )

They remember the fog, so thick the twin-engine C-46 charter was invisible until they almost bumped into it on the tarmac. They remember their coach, Roy Hughes, telling the pilot, "Let's give it the old college try," which ended a discussion of whether the plane should take off at 11 p.m. from Toledo.

The Cal Poly Mustangs had traveled to Ohio, as far east as the team had ever gone, to play Bowling Green. It was Oct. 29, 1960. They lost 50-6, enduring cold that made them shiver, these kids from California. Everyone wanted to get home.

The plane climbed 100 feet before the left engine failed, and then the right one. There was no time to be afraid, only enough time to tuck heads and hunch forward.

There were 48 people on board and 22 died, including 16 football players, the team manager and an alumni booster.

Of the 26 survivors, 24 had to be hospitalized.

The crash didn't draw as much attention as the one 10 years later that killed the Marshall University football team. But at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, disbelief quickly turned to grief.

The Mustangs came back the next year for a six-game season. The team didn't fly to a road game for nine years after the crash.

A benefit game was played in 1961 in L.A., Bowling Green against Fresno State. There is a plaque recognizing Cal Poly outside the Coliseum, where the Mercy Bowl was played.

On Saturday, as the Mustangs host St. Francis University of Pennsylvania, members of that 1960 team will participate in a memorial ceremony. They will pass through the stadium's plaza, where there are 18 pillars, one for each of the men with team associations who died in the crash. The pillars, dedicated in 2006, are in the shape of a huddle.

Five women were widowed and 11 children lost fathers. Investigators determined the plane was 2,000 pounds overweight, and with zero visibility, it should never have taken off.

Last Sunday, the Oakland Raiders were returning home by charter flight — and the mood was euphoric after an emphatic victory over the Broncos at Denver's Mile High Stadium.

Except for Ted Tollner. The 70-year-old passing coordinator grew tense after air turbulence lasted longer than usual. "Any kind of similar weather to that day," he says, "any kind of inclement weather, and something in my body reacts to that. I get real uptight about it."

Tollner was the quarterback on that Cal Poly team and remembers looking out from the bus en route to the Toledo airport. "It was like the Tule fog," he says, referring to the distinctive weather condition that can torment drivers between Bakersfield and Chico. He heard his coach and the pilot discussing whether to take off.

"I was building up my own anxiety," Tollner says. "We got up about 100 feet or so and it was the left engine that sputtered and went out. I knew we were going down, and I went into a ball to protect my head and that's all I remember until I came to."

When he did, Tollner was still strapped in his seat, which had been torn away from the plane. His left foot was twisted in the seat's footrest.

"I wanted to get up and start helping people," he remembers. "But I couldn't. Carl Bowser dragged me away from the fire, and I almost hate to say this for the families that still remember the loved ones lost, but all you could hear was all the screaming."

Tollner is hesitant to discuss his own injury. In bits and pieces, he talks of how doctors suggested his injured foot might have to be amputated. He won't talk about the constant pain, a torment for a man who stands four or five hours a day on a football field.

There is a moment when his words grow indistinct. Something else happened that night. Tollner and wide receiver Curtis Hill had switched seats. Hill didn't make it.

In a 47-year career, Tollner was head football coach at USC and San Diego State, where the endings were not ideal.

"Nothing in life is," he says, "but you go on.

"There is some sense that I owe it to the ones who didn't make it," Tollner says, "that I should make the most of this life."

Carl Bowser named his only son Larry Joe. It was his way of honoring Larry Austin and Joe Copeland.

The three grew up together in Bakersfield, played football together, went to Cal Poly together, dreamed of coming back to Bakersfield to coach football together, to raise families together.

Bowser, then a 23-year-old fullback, survived the crash. Austin and Copeland didn't, and Bowser still visits their graves in Bakersfield, just to say hello.

"I still wonder sometimes why me and not them," Bowser says. "I've given up trying to figure it out. Larry was married and had a little boy. I was single. For some reason we get called and not for who we are or what we are."

Bowser, who went back to Bakersfield and coached football at Bakersfield College, says it wasn't easy being a survivor.

"A lot of us had rough edges after the crash," he says. "We were raising too much hell, living a life of looseness, partying as if we figured what the heck, we might die the next day.

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