30 years ago, Indy watched in horror and wept as plane crash killed four prominent leaders

Two small planes collided in flight, killing six people. Both planes crashed into a southside housing edition on Sept. 11, 1992.
Two small planes collided in flight, killing six people. Both planes crashed into a southside housing edition on Sept. 11, 1992.

INDIANAPOLIS — The sky was cloudy with streaks of sunlight peeking through, the temperature was a balmy 72 degrees when a Friday afternoon in Indianapolis spiraled like a tornado from partly sunny to gray to black. It was a darkness that had nothing to do with the weather.

It was Sept. 11, 1992, and the clock was ticking toward 4 p.m. It was that time before the weekend when offices started closing their doors a little early and the city began to relax. And, in Indy, it was when the city began to bleed blue. The Indianapolis Colts were playing the Houston Oilers at home that Sunday.

Indy was an NFL novice, just eight years past luring the Baltimore Colts to the city with a shiny professional sports palace called the Hoosier Dome.

Inside their palace that Sunday, the Colts lost 20-10 to the Oilers. No one would have expected anything else, not after what had happened that Friday in their city before the game.

Four men, Michael A. Carroll, Frank McKinney Jr., Robert V. Welch and John Weliever were on a plane just south of the city. They were taking off for a business trip to AmeriFlora 92, an international exhibition, to learn how to promote a park on the White River just west of downtown.

Those four men were among the city's most prominent business, civic and sports leaders. They had been fighters and key players not only for professional sports in Indy, for the Hoosier Dome, for the Colts, but for the revitalization of a sleepy city often referred to as Naptown.

The crash happened about 10 miles south of Indianapolis, shortly after the private plane carrying Carroll, McKinney, Welch and Weliever, took off from Greenwood Municipal Airport. Their plane was headed for Columbus, Ohio, when it collided with another private plane, headed west.

The aircraft with Carroll, McKinney, Welch and Weliever aboard tried to veer at the last moment ″but it just didn’t make it,″ Danny Blackley told the Indianapolis Star in 1992. He was arriving home from work when the planes collided overhead.

″It was just like something out of the movies," he said. "They just hit and exploded."

Carroll, McKinney, Welch and Weliever were killed in the crash along with the pilots of both planes, William R. Mullen and William P. Bennett Jr.

And a city, which hours before had been celebrating the weekend, watched in horror the evening news. And Indianapolis wept.

'It was devastating. It was tragic'

Jim Morris was having dinner at former Indianapolis Mayor Bill Hudnut's home the Friday evening after the crash. Internet and social media didn't exist. The tragedy spread by television broadcasts, newspapers and word of mouth.

Morris, who in 1992 was chairman and CEO of Indianapolis Water Company, is not sure what he ate for dinner that evening or even if he ate, but Morris remembers what Hudnut told him.

There had been a plane crash. Four city leaders had died. Among them was one of Morris' closest friends, Carroll. He also knew Welch and McKinney well. He knew Weliever was one of the city's biggest advocates.

"It was as devastating, as emotional, as sad as anything could have been," Morris said last week. "To think that these guys who loved the city so much and loved the state, who worked all the time to make life better here, suddenly were gone. It was really something. It was tragic."

Four of Indy's most prominent leaders were killed Sept. 11, 1992 when their plane collided 10 miles south of Indianapolis with another private plane. Clockwise, Robert Welch, Frank McKinney, John Weliever and Michael Carroll.
Four of Indy's most prominent leaders were killed Sept. 11, 1992 when their plane collided 10 miles south of Indianapolis with another private plane. Clockwise, Robert Welch, Frank McKinney, John Weliever and Michael Carroll.

Details of the crash were revealed in the next day's newspapers with a headline: "Indianapolis weeps." After the two planes collided, one struck a single-story brick house. Inside was a 12-year-old girl.

"She was on the telephone talking to her mother and she heard a loud noise through the telephone,″ said Warren Township fire Lt. Tammy Neibert in 1992. ″She looked up and she could see an orange glow coming into the house from where the plane had hit the house.″

The girl escaped unharmed. Two passengers of the plane that hit the house were critically injured. One was a 24-year-old woman, who suffered burns over 30% of her body. The other was a 35-year-old man who had a broken leg and burns over 75% of his body.

The other plane, a propjet (which uses a turboprop engine to propel itself through the air), narrowly missed another home a mile away, said Cpl. Dave Henson of the Indiana State Police in 1992.

The jet slammed into the yard of the home. ″There were no survivors,″ said Felson Bowman, the owner of a coal company who lent the propjet to those four Indy men.

″(They were) the backbone of the civil leadership of Indianapolis,″ said Bowman in 1992.

The backbone of the city gone.

'Incalculable loss'

"I vividly remember the accident. I remember hearing it on the news," Jeff Smulyan, CEO of Emmis, told IndyStar last week. "I was totally stunned, like everyone else."

The four men aboard the propjet had remarkable resumes and an unmatched love for Indianapolis. "Indiana and its capital city suffered an incalculable loss," the Associated Press wrote three days after the crash.

″It’s just indescribable,″ Sen. Richard G. Lugar, R-Ind, said in 1992. ″It’s just so overwhelming.″

Gov. Bayh and others credited the four men with helping to reshape the image of Indianapolis for the previous 12 years.

But there was no way to quantify their impact on the city: the Hoosier Dome, the Colts, saving Cathedral High School, rebuilding the reputation of the Hoosier Lottery, right-hand men to politicians Lugar, Hudnut and Dan Quayle. The Indianapolis Tennis Center, IUPUI athletics, Indiana Sports Corp., White River State Park. A new Indianapolis Zoo.

"The creativity, the enthusiasm, the vision of those four men was gone," John L. Krauss, told IndyStar last week. "We suffered drastically from that plane crash."

Investigators (from left) Polly Hix, John Johnson, Kevin Poe and Lew Owens check the crash site where four of Indianapolis' most influential civic leaders died in a mid-air collision on Sept. 11, 1992.
Investigators (from left) Polly Hix, John Johnson, Kevin Poe and Lew Owens check the crash site where four of Indianapolis' most influential civic leaders died in a mid-air collision on Sept. 11, 1992.

In 1992, Krauss had just finished serving nine years as deputy mayor with Hudnut. Those men on the plane were his fellow civic leaders, his friends. Krauss was at home when he learned they had died. He couldn't comprehend it.

"They had nothing else but the benefit of the city in their minds. None of them were going to gain anything financially for themselves. It was, 'Let’s do it for the community. Let’s do it for Indianapolis,'" said Krauss who went on to be founding director of the Indiana University Public Policy Institute at IUPUI for 20 years. "They were all great men."

Robert Welch: Laid the groundwork for Colts coming to Indy

Welch was the oldest of the men who died in the plane crash by more than a decade. At 65, he was a prominent developer and had been a major player in the construction of the Hoosier Dome.

"Bob was passionate about bringing NFL football to the city," said Morris. "He worked so hard for years getting acquainted with the owners."

Welch did try, unsuccessfully, to bring a professional football franchise to Indy in the 1980s before Robert Irsay took the reins in 1984 and brought the Baltimore Colts to Indianapolis.

"I think Welch deserves an enormous amount of credit for the owners in the NFL thinking highly of our city," said Morris. "Bob laid the groundwork for NFL football in Indiana."

A Democrat, Welch unsuccessfully opposed former mayor Hudnut in 1975, but later he worked closely under Hudnut's administration to redevelop downtown.

Just 10 months before his death, Welch was named executive director of the White River State Park Commission by Gov. Bayh.

The owner of RV Welch investments Inc., he was a chairman of Indianapolis Public Schools in 1990 and 1991. He also founded Fidelity Bank in Carmel.

But many remember Welch as the man who saved Cathedral High School. In the early 1970s, Cathedral was on the brink of closing when Welch and other financial backers stepped up to keep the school open.

"There's no way you can explain his contributions. If it weren't for him, there would not be a Cathedral," Daniel J. O'Malia, chairman of the Cathedral board of trustees said in 1992. "He was the leader that kept the place going."

Welch touched so many parts of the city. And he did it quietly, humbly.

"He did many fine things for the city for which he never got credit, but he never wanted credit," Bob Collins, retired sports editor of the Indianapolis Star, said in 1992. "He did them because he loved Indianapolis."

Michael Carroll: 'The nicest human being I've ever known'

Carroll was vice president of community affairs at the Lilly Endowment when he died. He had friends on every street corner in Indy and at the highest levels of government. He went about life with kindness and humility.

"Mike was positively the nicest human being that I have ever known at that level of accomplishment," Susan Conner, who worked with Carroll at the Lilly Endowment, said in 1992.

Carroll was 51 when he died in the plane crash. He was a man who had helped the city acquire funding for the new Indianapolis Zoo in 1988 and for world-class athletic facilities in the city — the Hoosier Dome, the Indiana University Natatorium, IUPUI's track and field stadium and the Indianapolis Sports Center.

The IU Michael A. Carroll Track & Soccer Stadium at IUPUI is named in his honor.

Michael Carroll is shown in 1983.
Michael Carroll is shown in 1983.

Carroll's civic service included stints as deputy mayor of Indianapolis and special assistant to Sen. Richard Lugar and to Dan Quayle when he was a senator.

After Carroll's death, Lugar, who served two terms as Indianapolis mayor, talked about Carroll joining the city administration when Lugar was first elected mayor in 1967. When Lugar became a senator, he brought Carroll on as his state director.

″He was always on the cutting edge in the transformation of Indianapolis into a great city,″ Lugar said in 1992.

Krauss and Carroll worked together for Lugar when he was mayor. Krauss remembers Carroll as a man "who was always dreaming about what Indianapolis could be."

John Mutz, a former lieutenant governor, was president of Lilly Endowment when Carroll died. "Mike is one of the most positive people about life and about other people that I've ever known," he said. "His enthusiasm was just contagious."

As Carroll fought for Indy, he did it with grace and leadership that made others want to follow, said Morris.

"Mike Carroll was a guy I doubt that anyone ever said an unkind thing about or anything disrespectful," he said. "He was much loved, much admired, an incredibly hard worker, a man of great humility. He was as fine a man as there ever could be."

Frank McKinney, Jr.: Olympic gold medal swimmer and banking guru

At 16, McKinney started working as a teller at Fidelity Bank & Trust Co., where his dad was chief executive. He liked the banking business and wanted to make his mark. But first he would go to Indiana University and swim for legendary coach James "Doc" Counsilman, who led the school to 23 Big Ten titles.

In 1960 in Rome, McKinney won an Olympic gold medal in the 400-meter medley relay and a silver medal in the 100-meter backstroke.

He was a determined, humble man who set goals and accomplished them.

Indiana swimming coach James (Doc) Counsilman talks with swimmers Bill Barton, left,  and Frank McKinney Jr. in this 1959 file photo
Indiana swimming coach James (Doc) Counsilman talks with swimmers Bill Barton, left, and Frank McKinney Jr. in this 1959 file photo

"Frank knew very clearly that he wanted to be a world-class swimmer. He wanted to be a giant in the business world," Rev. Joseph Wade, pastor of St. Matthew Catholic Church, said as he eulogized McKinney in 1992. "But he had a soft side, too."

McKinney was shy. He didn't shout. He led by example. And his hard work and drive paid off for that 16-year-old who wanted to make it in the banking business.

In 1987, McKinney was chairman and CEO of his father's bank. By then, it had merged with American Fletcher National and was one of the state's largest banks. McKinney made a bold move in Indiana banking circles, selling his bank to an out-of-state corporation, Bank One.

McKinney became a significant force advocating for the construction of the tallest building in the state, the Bank One Tower in downtown Indianapolis, now the Salesforce Tower.

When he died, McKinney was 53 and chairman of Bank One Indiana, Corp.

"He led the way in the revitalization of the city's downtown," said William K. McGowan, Jr., president of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association, in 1992.

And not just in banking. McKinney was Gov. Bayh's senior advisor on international trade. He was behind many downtown renewal projects, including the restoration of bricks in and around Monument Circle. He was on the board of OneAmerica and chairman of the effort to build a tennis stadium downtown.

At his funeral, his son Frank E. McKinney, III, remembered his father's drive and what he told him time and time again: "You can do anything you put your mind to. Use your best judgment."

And have dreams, the kind of dreams that make things better for others, for a city.

John Weliever: 'Someone like him you can't replace'

Weliever, the youngest of the men to die in the plane crash, was 50 and a former Martinsville auto dealer turned savior of the Hoosier Lottery.

Weliever had restored credibility to the Hoosier Lottery as its director, after former director Jack Crawford resigned amid a sex scandal.

Crawford, once a rising star in the state Democratic Party, was forced to resign as director of the Hoosier Lottery in December 1989 after his former girlfriend, who was on the lottery payroll as human resources director, alleged he sexually harassed her. Crawford had a wife and two sons.

Weliever stepped up.

"He willingly assumed the top post when he would have rather returned to his family’s car dealership," the IndyStar wrote after his death.

John Weliever, former Indiana Lottery Director, was killed in a plane crash Sept. 11, 1992.
John Weliever, former Indiana Lottery Director, was killed in a plane crash Sept. 11, 1992.

Weliever was a dedicated and lifelong Democrat, but he always put politics aside, friends and family said. Weliever "had that rare quality of treating everyone the same despite their station in life," the IndyStar wrote in 1992.

"He was a Democrat but everybody liked him," said Marion county coroner Dr. Dennis J Nicholas, a Republican, in 1992. "To a fella like John Weliever, there was no political party. John was a very warm, outgoing individual. He was genuinely liked by everyone he came in contact with."

Weliever was named commissioner of the Indiana Department of Administration by Gov.-elect Bayh in January 1989.

"I've known John a long time. He was very involved in this community, just a genuine good human being," Bayh said in 1992. "Here he was in the prime of his life. He's helped more people out of the goodness of his heart. John leaves a void. Someone like him you can't replace."

'When you lose four men like this?'

Thousands of people attended the funerals of Carroll, McKinney, Welch and Weliever. At Carroll's alone there were more than 2,000. But that was 30 years ago.

"Thank you for doing this," Morris says over and over. He wants these four men to be remembered.

"These were all good guys, nice people, good family people. They were the bedrock of the community," said Morris, who went on to become vice chairman of Pacers Sports and Entertainment. "When you lose four men like this? These were all guys that had another 30 or 35 years to give to the community."

And what they could have given, had they lived, those four men crafting ideas for the city, Krauss said, is endless.

Indianapolis didn't have a negative reputation before Carroll, McKinney, Welch and Weliever. It just didn't have a reputation, Krauss said.

"Nothing came up on the TV screen. It was blank. Nobody thought about Indianapolis other than the race," he said. "But there are 364 other days beyond the race."

Those four men started plotting to make Indy more than the Indianapolis 500, to make it an NFL city with a world class convention center, a park, athletic facilities and a thriving downtown.

And they did it as naysayers came out in force.

"All those things they did, if you thought about them initially, you would probably think about 100 reasons why they wouldn’t work," said Krauss. "But their spirit was, 'Let’s not find the 100 reasons why it won’t work. Let’s find one reason why it will work.'

"That plane crash didn't just take four men. It took a part of Indy with it."

Follow IndyStar sports reporter Dana Benbow on Twitter: @DanaBenbow. Reach her via email: dbenbow@indystar.com.

This article originally appeared on Indianapolis Star: 30 years ago, plane crash killed four prominent Indianapolis leaders