By KDKA Staff
PETERS TOWNSHIP, Pennsylvania (KDKA) — It’s a Christmas one family will never forget, even 50 years later.
On Dec. 25, 1971, the Voshell family decided to fly their single-engine Beechcraft Musketeer to Connellsville, PA from their home in Dover, Delaware to visit family.
The pilot and owner of the plane, Willis Voshell, and two daughters, Jeri Spiker and Velvet Siegal loaded up Christmas afternoon, along with Jeri’s then-boyfriend, Warren Spiker who was in the Air Force.
“I was supposed to work that day. So, I went into work and at about noon my boss told me that because it was so slow that I got the rest of the day off,” Warren Spiker said. “So, I went out to visit my girlfriend and while I was there, her dad said, ‘Hey, you want me to fly you back to see your folks’ and I said sure.”
After a short visit, around 8 p.m., the family headed back to Connellsville to fly back home.
“We needed fuel but since it was Christmas night, everybody had already got home and the fuel pit was closed,” Spiker said.
“Dad was like, it’s no big deal. There was another airport, but not far away from takeoff. So, he said we’d go there, get fuel and then head home,” Velvet said.
Velvet was 10 years old at the time and loved flying with her dad.
Jeri was a senior in high school, looking forward to graduation.
“My dad was loved flying. He had a hobby of flying his private plane,” Jeri said.
The family said Willis planned to go to an airport in Morgantown to fuel up the plane, which should have been a 15-minute flight.
“We soon realized that something’s wrong and he (Willis) thought, ‘I’m just not seeing the runway’ or you know because he started talking to the person at the airport. And I don’t know, I guess the air traffic controllers were convinced that we were near them, and they told us to stay on the same course that we were almost there,” Velvet said.
“They kept saying that we should see runway lights and we were not seeing them and not seeing them,” Jeri said.
The family didn’t realize they were actually headed toward Washington County but knew they were going to run out of gas.
“He was telling him how long and how much time he had left and as it (gas gauge) got lower and lower, you know, we realize it’s gonna be a problem, but I mean, I was 10, so in my mind, I didn’t panic. It was my dad. He was gonna take care of us. It was the faith of a child,” Velvet said.
Velvet said her dad reported to air traffic control the plane was out of gas and that they would have to land it.
“So, we’re looking at the highway and then all of a sudden he saw the parking lot and he said, ‘Okay, better yet,’” Velvet said.
The family had spotted the Donaldson Crossroads parking lot which had been empty at the time with no cars in the parking lot because it was Christmas.
The parking lot was lined with light poles that were lit up, making a makeshift runway for their landing.
That’s when they said they ran out of gas.
“I was calling up mayday, mayday and giving the plane number and saying we are going down. We’re going down. Mayday, mayday,” Warren said.
“All of the sudden, it clicked. I’m like, mayday?! Dad said Mayday! That means we’re going down!” Velvet said.
“As we came into make our landing, there was one light pole at the end that was not lit,” Jeri said. “That caught our right wing and just totaled the plane. It kind of flip us over and totaled the plane.”
THE RESPONSE On duty that night was Officer Scott Patton, a part-time Peters Township police officer. He said he was the only officer on duty that night due to it being the holiday.
“Dispatch called me. I was traveling north on route 19 almost in the Upper St. Clair when I got the call from headquarters. The quote from headquarters was, ‘There has been an accident with a small ‘aeroplane’ in the parking lot behind Vitte’s Hardware. Check it out,” Patton said.
Patton said at first, he assumed it had to have been a small child playing with a new toy, an airplane on the end of a wire.
He said it wasn’t until dispatch called again, that he realized it was an actual plane that had crashed.
“She means a plane crash! Why didn’t she say a plane crashed? I put the pedal to the metal I put the sirens on and all of a sudden, my brain is processing what am I going to see now? Patton said.
When he first arrived on the scene, he said he didn’t see any fire or debris.
He said it wasn’t until he turned into Vitte’s Hardware that he saw a plane up on its nose with a wing worn off.
THE CRASH “Dad said brace yourselves. We were in the back and Jeri pushed my head down in her lap and covered me,” Velvet said. “And all of a sudden, we just boom. Jolted. It was like, what happened?”
“After we finally stopped and she (Velvet) sat up, we both looked at each other because my dad and Warren were in the front and they went forward and hit their heads,” Jeri said. “They just kind of slumped over and you know, blood was everywhere, and Velvet and I remember we looked at each other and we were like, are they dead? We just didn’t know.”
They all survived.
The family said Willis had kicked open the plane door and began getting everyone out. Warren had a head injury and ran to the road to get help.
“That’s when Jeri said, I think I hurt my back is broken,” Velvet said.
Patton said he arrived on the scene and helped them out of the plane and into an ambulance.
50 YEARS LATER This Christmas is 50 years since the crash happened. Patton said he decided to try to locate the family after someone on Facebook posted about the crash and if anyone remembered it.
In November, Warren and Jeri Spiker flew into Pittsburgh International Airport to meet once again at the crash site.
Velvet and her husband Andrew Siegel came in from Dover, Delaware.
“We exchanged greetings and hugs. Because even though we’ve not met each other in 50 years, we have this long-time connection,” Patton said. “Just remembering and bringing it all back to the front again. And I said it was a Christmas miracle the way that circumstances got them safely to the ground without divine intervention.”
“It brings back a lot of good memories and a lot of bad memories. But it’s nice to get together and finally meet him under different circumstances,” Warren said.
The light pole that the family said they struck that night is still left as a stub in the ground at the Donaldson Crossroads.
“It surprises me that they have never replaced that,” Warren said.
The family said their lives changed forever after the crash.
“In the year after the crash, I decided that I was going to take my private pilot’s license so I wouldn’t be at the mercy of anybody up there again,” Warren said. “I would be able to, you know, figure out what’s going on, fly the plane and land the plane.”
“The big change for my life? I never loved flying the way I did before. I mean, I loved it,” Velvet said.
Velvet said she did end up flying in her dad’s plane again to get over her fears.
“I went up a few more times but it just never came back. I was like, no, I know what can happen now,” Velvet said.
“To this day, I have a really large lump in the middle of my back. That’s noticeable to feel. I haven’t had any trouble with it at all,” Jeri said.
“Here’s the biggest of the miracle. They showed me their family pictures. Goodness and she’s right, I mean, all the kids and grandkids. They’re beautiful people and that’s the miracle of getting that plane down here on the ground,” Patton said.
Jeri and Warren got married a few years after the crash. They have two kids now and six grandchildren.
Velvet and Andrew have five kids and seven grandchildren.
Patton said for him, that Christmas day is one he will never forget.
“In my time as a police officer, I wrote many crime and accident reports – too many to remember. But this one—the one about the Christmas miracle- this one I will never forget,” Patton said.
Jeri and Velvet said they had never lost faith in their father when the incident happened and believed that God would get them through it.
“My family is very a family of faith. Very simple faith though. So just the Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Blessed be the name of the Lord, you know? It’s just sometimes things happen for the good. Sometimes bad things happen, but God’s always in control,” Velvet said.
“I really have to believe that it was his hand that protected us and kept us safe,” Jeri said.
The family said Willis passed away in August 2001 from complications from a stroke that he had several years before.
According to Connellsville Airport manager Bud Neckerauer, the fuel station is always open now, including on holidays.
Please note: This content carries a strict local market embargo. If you share the same market as the contributor of this article, you may not use it on any platform.