Madison County

‘Why me, Lord?’ As Somerset grieves plane crash victims, another town remembers its loss

The shock and loss that Pulaski County is feeling in the wake of a plane crash that killed four people is similar to what Richmond felt 45 years ago this week, when 10 Madison Countians and a pilot died in a similar tragedy.

Richmond will have a ceremony Friday to unveil a new marker to tell about the 10 men who died on Nov. 17, 1972.

The 10 were passengers in a twin-engine chartered plane returning to Richmond after a football game in Hopkinsville between Madison High and Trigg County.

The passengers were Charles Shackelford, 29, an assistant county attorney; Hugh Robbins, 32, an attorney; James A. House, 21, city editor of the Richmond Daily Register; Roy Russell Watson Jr., 26, a member of the advertising staff at the Richmond newspaper; George Lyttle Vernon, 29, an employee of IBM in Lexington; Maurice Mundy, 36, owner of a Richmond car wash; Ben Robinson Jr., 27, who worked with his father at a beer distributorship and an ice company; J.D. Frankenberger, 25, owner of a Richmond liquor store; David Gooslin, 26, an employee of Central Vending Co.; and Joe Hunter, 57, a liquor store owner.

The pilot, Lawrence McDermott, 54, of Elizabethtown, also died in the crash northwest of Elkton in Todd County. The twin-engine Beechcraft plane, chartered through a Bardstown company, crashed minutes after takeoff.

Fast-forward 45 years to Sunday, when a small airplane crashed into a tree in Barren County, killing an attorney, his 15-year-old son, a dentist and a police chaplain, all from Somerset. Scott Foster, 41; son Noah, 15; Kyle Stewart, 41; and Doug Whitaker had been on a hunting trip in Tennessee and were returning to Somerset when the crash occurred.

Like the victims in Sunday’s crash, those killed in the 1972 accident were in the prime of their lives, Richmond Mayor Jim Barnes said.

“They were just good people,” Barnes said. “Young. Aggressive. And you just wonder: What would they be doing today?”

Marc Robbins, a nephew of Hugh “Huey” Robbins, said he and his family were driving from Cincinnati to Richmond when they heard a news report about a Western Kentucky plane crash.

“My father was a notoriously slow driver, and he was listening to AM radio, which was all we had in the car at that time,” Robbins said. “He heard about the crash, and he knew his brother had taken a trip on a plane to catch this football game. That’s the first time I remember my Dad driving actually fast.”

Upon returning to Richmond, “We pulled up in the driveway and saw a note on the door, and we knew that was bad news,” Robbins said.

Richmond today has more than 34,600 residents, almost three times its size in 1972, when Robbins said the city was a “sleepy, small community” where “everybody knew everybody.”

“It was a very traumatic thing,” Robbins said.

And there are Richmond residents who turned down invitations to join the trip to Hopkinsville.

Among them is Richmond dentist Dr. Fred Ballou. He told the Herald-Leader, at the time, that a cold kept him home. But his name was listed on the flight’s passenger manifest.

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“About 1:30 in the morning, our telephone rang, and my wife answered it,” Ballou said earlier this week. “And I heard my wife say, ‘No, he’s here.’ It was Ben’s wife who called to see if I had come home yet. It just sounded bad to us, so we got up and turned on the radio. And we started to hear a little of this and a little of that, and as daylight approached, the news was pretty bad.”

Ballou, 73, will speak at Friday’s ceremony to unveil the new marker that will provide context to an existing memorial at Irvine McDowell Park.

“We often ask ourselves ‘Why me, Lord?’ I had to ask why my life was spared,” Ballou wrote in his prepared remarks. “Someone took my place. How can anyone ever repay that debt?”

Asked whether he lived life more intentionally after the crash, Ballou said: “I’m a little guy, and I’ve grown up with the attitude that you have to play the game a little harder. I would say I’m a much more spiritual person now than I was then. I was hell-bent for leather back in those days.”

Richmond dentist Dr. Fred Ballou speaks about an upcoming ceremony to remember 10 men who died in a 1972 plane crash. Ballou was invited to go on the trip but did not.

The 1972 crash was the worst air disaster in Kentucky since 70 people were killed in the November 1970 crash of a Trans World Airlines passenger jet on its approach to Greater Cincinnati Airport in Boone County.

The National Transportation Safety Board, the federal investigative agency, cited sleet and freezing rain among the factors in the cause of the 1972 crash, as well as “inadequate preflight preparation and/or planning,” and “improperly loaded aircraft weight.” A full narrative is not available in online records.

Whatever the cause, Marilyn Robinson Williams, Ben Robinson Jr.’s sister, said Richmond residents came together to support the survivors.

“I remember how hard it was for us, but then the community came behind us and supported everybody’s family that was impacted by this tragedy,” she said.

What would Williams tell Somerset and Pulaski County residents as they grieve?

“I would say even though you may not see it, there are people in your community that are behind you and who are thinking about you, and will always remember these lives that are lost,” Williams said. “Communities do get through these times, but it’s very difficult.”

The unveiling of a new commemorative marker for the Nov. 17, 1972, crash memorial will be at noon Friday at Irvine McDowell Park in Richmond off Lancaster Avenue. In case of bad weather, the ceremony will move to Richmond City Hall, 239 West Main Street.

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