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WOSTER: Men who died in 1993 plane crash never experienced many of life's joys

Terry Woster

Twenty years ago this Friday, I watched some television coverage of the Waco incident with Joe Kafka in the Associated Press bureau, then went home, set some hamburger to browning in a skillet and received a call with word that a state airplane had crashed near a small town in Iowa.

A routine day, ordinary but for the national news. Then a phone call, and the world changed forever for South Dakota, its citizens and the family members and friends of the eight men who crashed. Lost in the crash were Gov. George Mickelson, pilots Ron Becker and Dave Hansen, state officials Rolly Dolly and Ron Reed and Sioux Falls business leaders David Birkeland, Angus Anson and Roger Hainje.

Bob Mercer, a veteran Capitol newsman, recently blogged about the flight, the storm, the lost engine and the crash in a short, powerful passage that ended:

"I have thought many times about those final minutes, how they came out of the clouds trying to find a safe place to land with one engine gone. Only they and God know how very, very hard they must have tried.''

Reading the passage, I thought of Bob and me, sitting in front of a Pierre church struggling not to cry as the funeral for one of the men neared an end inside the building. Reporters tend to hide their emotions, but that day, that week, what would be the point? The whole state mourned.

In recent days, I've anticipated news stories and columns about the 20th anniversary. So far, the public attention has been relatively light. Perhaps that's as well. I talked the other day with a woman whose husband died in the crash. She said the 20th anniversary is another day to feel the loss.

"We remember every day. Not a day has gone by in 20 years that we haven't remembered, and the loss never goes away. You just find a way to live through it,'' she said.

The news business used to be big on "anniversaries'' of important events, and few events have been more important in South Dakota. Some of the stories, I suppose, on the 20th anniversary, might speculate on ways South Dakota might be different if the crash had not happened. They might discuss an altered political landscape or possible initiatives of a complete Mickelson second term with that big guy's "ramming speed'' approach to government.

We'll never know what might have been for the public South Dakota.

What I've found myself reflecting on as this anniversary approaches is how different life would have been for the families of those eight men who died in the crash. What would any of those families not have given for two more decades, even two more minutes, with a spouse, a father, a brother, a son, a favorite uncle or a grandfather? How different would have been the past 20 years of births and baptisms, ballets and state tournaments, graduations and weddings and anniversaries and yes, even funerals, with those missing men safe and at home?

Perhaps advancing age shifts perspective, but I've also reflected on what experiences and joys those men have been denied these many long years. When the state airplane went down, I had one married child, another in grad school, a third still in high school. Two decades later, I have two children married and the third engaged. I gave away the bride, attended the second wedding and plan to be at the third one this July.

I have five granddaughters, all since 1993. Each brings indescribable delight to my life and makes growing older the rich privilege I sometimes forget it is. Just last weekend, I was in the audience to watch one granddaughter in a school play. Later that night I was out along the interstate helping two other granddaughters free their car from the snow after they slid off the highway.

One event was pleasing, the other frightening. I had the choice to go to each event or to skip it. The eight men of whom I write didn't get that choice. They should have. Their families should have.

That's something to remember on the 20th anniversary.