My dad's plane crash

Post date: Mar 07, 2021 8:22:59 PM

January marked the 56th anniversary of my dad’s plane crash in a heavily-forested area of east Texas known as The Big Thicket. My dad’s name was Dr. T.V. “Corky” Farris, but in this story, I’ll just refer to him as Pop. At the time of the crash, Pop was a 37-year-old associate with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, a position he had taken after we returned from five years in Japan, where my parents served as missionaries.

On Tuesday, January 12, 1965, he was slated to lead a meeting at Central Baptist Church in the tiny east Texas town of Evadale, to help prepare them for an upcoming Evangelism Clinic, after speaking the day before at a church in the Texas panhandle. Rather than crisscross the state by car, his good friend Len Rogers, a building contractor who had his pilot’s license and his own airplane (a single-engine Mooney aircraft), flew him to the panhandle on Monday, then down to Evadale on Tuesday, with plans to return to Dallas on Wednesday.

After the Tuesday meeting in Evadale, Len called the National Weather Bureau office in Beaumont for an updated weather report, and he was told that a low cloud ceiling was expected, but not until the next morning. Because Len was not instrument rated and had to operate by visual flight rules, they decided to leave that night to avoid the next morning’s low ceiling, even though darkness was already setting in. They took off from a tiny air strip that belonged to a paper mill, circled the field once, at which point the landing lights on the ground were turned off, and then headed northwest.

Almost immediately after the ground lights went out, they hit low clouds at about 750 feet above sea level, far earlier than predicted by the National Weather Bureau. There was also unexpected heavy fog beneath it, so no one really knows how low the ceiling was. Len realized he had no choice but to stay beneath the clouds/fog, so he reduced altitude in order to pilot the plane visually.

Evadale, which is close to the Gulf coast, is only 46 feet above sea level. Elevations in the northern part of The Big Thicket gradually rise to 350+ feet above sea level, with a cover of pine trees that extend another 150+ feet, placing treetops at 500 feet or more above sea level. Trying to stay below the cloud/fog ceiling as the ground elevation rose, the plane flew into treetops at 170 miles per hour. The Civil Aeronautics Board later determined that the crash was the result of “a faulty weather report” that inaccurately “indicated no weather problems.”

Speaking of the actual crash, Pop said, “The last thing I remember is flying underneath that overcast, seeing the lights on the ground, and the next thing I remember is it being deathly quiet and Len shaking me, saying, ‘Corky, get out. We’ve crashed.’”

Let me switch points of view now to our home in Duncanville, a suburb just south of Dallas. My mother was holding down the fort, trying to keep control of three kids until Pop got home. I was 9 years old, in the fourth grade; my sister Darlyne was 11, in the sixth grade; and my brother Steve was 4, in no grade.

A key point here: The original plan was for Pop and Len to fly home Wednesday, about mid-day, but they took off Tuesday night instead. That was back before the days of cell phones, emails, and text messages, so rather than make a long-distance call, Pop decided simply to come home early and surprise us. The plane crashed Tuesday night around 10:30 p.m. but, because we weren’t expecting him that night, no one even missed them until early Wednesday afternoon.

My mother began to worry when Pop didn’t arrive home Wednesday as expected and she hadn’t heard from him. She thought, at first, that maybe he had gone to the office, but he wasn’t there when she called. That night, at supper, we ate quietly while she fretted. Being young and stupid, I thought I’d say something to lighten the mood.

“Maybe they crashed.”

To this day, I feel guilt and shame for saying that, as if my words caused the crash. The plane had already been down for close to 20 hours by then, but that didn’t stop my 9-year-old brain from assuming responsibility. My 65-year-old brain still harbors guilt feelings to this day.

Thursday afternoon around 2:30, 40 hours after the plane went down, searchers with the Civil Air Patrol spotted the wreckage in the Big Thicket, and a ground search team arrived at the site shortly after that. One of the searchers noted two tall trees with gashes high on their trunks, indicating that the fuselage threaded the needle between them, which knocked the wings off simultaneously. You can see that marked on a sketch one of the rescuers made of the site. Losing the wings, along with the attached gasoline tanks, accomplished two things: it prevented the plane from cartwheeling, and it is probably the only thing that kept the plane from catching fire.

The fuselage came to rest on its belly on the floor of The Big Thicket. There is a picture of the wreckage, along with a picture of two pieces of metal from the wreckage, which I keep as reminders. You can see blood stains on one of them.

Len suffered numerous internal injuries and, after he grew weaker over the first night, Pop decided to go for help Wednesday morning. In the near distance, he could hear sounds of traffic, so he headed in that direction. But the crash had broken his back (compression fractures; i.e., crushed vertebra), leaving him fully paralyzed from the waist down, so he had to resort to crawling by dragging his lower body with his elbows.

Pop crawled until he blacked out and could go no farther. When he was found Thursday afternoon, he had managed to crawl only a few hundred yards from the plane, in the direction of a state highway about a mile or so away. He didn’t even know that Len had died until he was rescued. One of the pictures is of Pop on the floor of the forest, talking to rescuers as they await medical help.

I’ll never forget how I learned that he had been found. My fourth grade class had combined with the other fourth grade class in our school (Merrifield Elementary in Duncanville) to watch a film. While it was playing, the principal came over the public address system and summoned my teacher, Ms. Walraven, to the office. She came back a few minutes later, approached me where I sat, and said, “They found your daddy.”

She then sent me to the office where my grandparents waited. My mother had already left for Woodville, TX, where Pop had been taken to a small hospital, and where he stayed for several weeks, then he was transferred to Baylor Hospital in Dallas for back surgery followed by rehab. While Pop was in Woodville and at Baylor, my mother stayed with him, while we three kids were farmed out to friends’ homes. For the next couple of months, I lived with the family of our pastor at First Baptist Church of Duncanville, Gene and Mary McCombs and their kids, Paula and my best friend, Terrell.

I’ll never forget the night when Pop was released from the hospital. His doctors had told him that he would never walk again but, though he had to wear a bulky metal-and-leather back brace, heavy leg braces, and arm-brace crutches, he walked out of the hospital under his own power. When the ambulance arrived home, he also walked into our house under his own power. I still get teary-eyed thinking about it. Every kid who was ever threatened with “Just wait ‘til your father gets home” should be so lucky. I was never happier for my father to get home.

I spent a lot of hours over the next year helping Pop with his exercises as he rehabbed at home. I'm not sure how much help I really was, at 9- and 10-years-old, but it was time I spent one-on-one with him that I’ll always treasure. He ultimately was able to jettison the braces and walk using only a cane for balance. I’ve included pictures of one pf his canes, dark with a mother-of-pearl inlay, that was my favorite; I have paired it with a picture of him standing at a microphone and leaning on that same cane. Though he walked with a broken, stumbling gait for the rest of his life, he defied his doctors and he walked! Right up to the day he died just prior to Christmas of 1993.

Pop continued his ministry even after the crash, as an evangelist, pastor, and then seminary professor. He always believed that the experience of those 40 hours in The Big Thicket, and being tied to a cane for the rest of his life, gave him credibility to minister to others who had suffered pain and loss. Here’s how he summed up the experience:

“Some people have said, off and on across the years, ‘When you get to heaven, the Lord will explain to you why you had to carry that cane.’ And my response has been, ‘Well, he may. But we have an agreement: So far as I’m concerned, he’s under no obligation to mention it.’ But I have a feeling that, if he should say, ‘Hey, Farris, let me explain to you why you had to carry that cane all those years,’ surely my response will be, ‘Lord, what cane was that?’”