On her wedding day, Sue Ann Richards played the music they had planned for the processional, as she sat, sobbing, on her groom’s grave.
It was the day after his funeral. His best man was dead, too.
Six friends — fun-loving, athletic, adventurous guys in their 30s — had crashed in a small plane. Ten of them had gone on an annual fishing trip to the Outer Banks, but only four made it home to Northern Virginia.
The search took a week and transfixed the Washington area, as family members camped out at a small airport in Manassas and hundreds of volunteers hiked through fields, woods and mountains of an enormous swath of rural Virginia, trying to find the six friends.
Twenty-five years later, some of those who loved them gathered this weekend to play golf, play cards and celebrate their lives.
A lot has changed since the May 1990 crash: Parents have died, couples have come together, children were born, grew up, went off to college. It is difficult to remember a time when a plane could be lost for so many days, when people would donate copy machines to help make paper maps for search parties, and a company would install a bank of pay phones at the airport so people could get news.
But some things did not change: The bonds between them are as tight as ever.
“We are all so interconnected,” said Lourine Cooney, who was 29 years old and three months pregnant when her then-new husband, Ronnie Wiencek, died.
When they get together, they tell stories about the six friends, how funny their lives were, how they were such crazy thrill-seekers. Wiencek used to often tell her that when he died, it was going to be big.
Richards had a bad feeling about the trip before her fiance, Alan David Weggeland, left.
She figured it was just pre-wedding jitters, but it bothered her enough, this idea in her head of a plane crashing in the dark in a storm, that she pleaded with him not to fly at night. She stayed up late to write a letter about how much she loved him.
She felt so sick when his plane took off that she canceled the last fitting of her ivory satin-and-lace wedding dress.
The friends did everything together — playing softball, basketball, sailing. If one of the guys got onto the boat with a stuffed parrot on a shoulder, an eye patch, a plastic knife gripped in his teeth, no one was surprised.
Wiencek, a contractor, was the glue; he led their softball team, he organized the annual fishing trip, he flew one of the two small planes they took. They snapped a photo the day before they left for home, 10 guys grinning in the sunshine on a dock, after a day of fishing and basketball played in flip-flops.
One of the friends drove home with all their golf clubs and the hundreds of pounds of tuna they’d caught. Two planes took off. They knew a storm was coming in, so they decided to fly at night to try to beat the bad weather. The plane flown by Steve Sisk touched down in Richmond to refuel and lost contact with the other Cessna.
The next morning, when Sisk and Wiencek’s wife realized only one plane had landed back in Virginia, their first thought was the guys might be pulling a pre-wedding prank, maybe spiriting Weggeland off to Atlantic City or something crazy.
But when Richards went to the airport to check whether the plane had taken off from Manteo, the look on the faces of the people who worked there told her everything: An alert was out. The flight was missing.
She tried to call Wiencek’s sister, Deb Rowan, and collapsed in a phone booth, hysterical.
The families of Wiencek, Weggeland, Jim Wolfe, R. David Day, William Lloyd Jr. and Doug DeBoer stayed at the airfield during the day, tying yellow ribbons around their wrists, some wearing the green shirts from the softball team.
So began a week of prayers, of deals Richards tried to make with God to get them home safely, of stories traded between families, of regular briefings in a giant tent at the airport, of possible pings from the transponder that kept turning out to be false leads.
There were organized efforts to find the plane, and volunteer efforts, covering nearly one-third of the state, near Lake Anna and the northern part of Shenandoah National Park. The Civil Air Patrol flew more than 10,000 miles. Student groups fanned out through fields. A group of motorcyclists combed through back roads. Rowan pleaded to people watching on television, “If you’re hearing this, and you’re north of Richmond, please search your land. Please search your farm.”
On Mother’s Day, with rain pouring down, they wished for the sons to be found. One evening, a group of the family members went to get something to eat and passed a small chapel. The door was open, and they went inside and prayed together.
Every night when Richards got home, she would find in the mail a couple more RSVPs for the wedding.
Then, the Virginia National Guard was deployed. But it was DeBoer’s brother Todd who found a piece of maroon-and-white metal deep in dense woods in Spotsylvania County southwest of Fredericksburg. Other volunteers went in.
In Manassas later that afternoon, an official said, “Your boys aren’t going to come home.” The tent filled with screams.
Some still thought, in the backs of their minds, the six friends, so young and strong, were off on some adventure, maybe playing another practical joke. Rowan was so certain her brother was alive that she talked a friend into driving straight to the crash site and got lost for hours until they stumbled upon flashing lights from the emergency crews blazing in the night. A police officer turned her back, but the next day, two people from each family were allowed to go in.
“I’ll never forget the smell,” Richards said. “The smell of death was everywhere.”
Wiencek’s wife kept coming back, searching for his wedding ring. They never found it, but they found odd remnants: eyeglasses, a toothbrush, a plastic comb. A rescue worker told Richards that they found her letter to Weggeland.
More than a thousand people came to a memorial for the six men, listening to the song that was meant to be Richards’s first dance with her new husband: “What a Wonderful World.”
Then the funerals began.
Twenty-five years later, the six stones they laid at the airport that week, makeshift markers, are gone. Other memorials, such as charitable donations, remain, and continue. Some people thought of the friends as they gathered for drinks or dinner or golf this weekend; others remember them in their own way. Rowan thinks of her brother every day as she passes his favorite restaurant or his grave site by their mother’s house. Lourine Cooney, long since remarried and with two children, thinks of the baby girl she lost in pregnancy months after the crash. She named the girl Ronnie.
“Everyone thinks their loved one who died is special, their group of friends is special,” Richards said. “But we’ve lived 25 years and we’ve never come across a group of people like those guys were. The happy story is we’re all still friends. We all still love each other.”
She and Rowan are going to ask airport officials next week if they can add a memorial. They’d like to rename the Manassas airfield “Six Friends Airport.”