'Retired' pianist's crash a turning point

Chad Lundquist/Nevada Appeal Richard Sowers, 76, sits at his baby grand piano at his Carson City home.

Chad Lundquist/Nevada Appeal Richard Sowers, 76, sits at his baby grand piano at his Carson City home.

Carson City resident Richard Sowers said he believes surviving an airplane crash is part of the greater plan God has for him.

On June 1, 1999, Sowers was flying to Little Rock, Ark., from Tucson, Ariz., for an AARP meeting. American Airlines Flight 1420 was to have a one-hour layover in Dallas.

But because of a severe storm, the flight was delayed three hours waiting for the storm to pass.

"We took off after the storm passed, and guess what - we caught up with it," Sowers said.

Lightning, hail and strong crosswinds should have kept the pilot from landing in Little Rock.

"We did nothing but slide, shake, and rock and roll," Sowers said. "In the mayhem, the pilot and/or the co-pilot did not put the flaps down so we never slowed down. Then the landing gear failed."

Sowers said the plane slid sideways, and its front third was sheared off when it hit a light pole, killing the pilot. The larger section of the plane continued to slide and was cut in half when it hit a steel bridge over a river.

"Fire started, and it was utter chaos. I always sit in the rear of the plane because I've never been on a plane that's backed into a mountain."

The men in the rear of the plane began helping others evacuate. As the fire came closer, another passenger kicked a side door open, allowing the rest of them to escape.

Sowers jumped through the opening and landed face down in river muck.

"I was helped up by a younger man, and those of us who made it out waited for one hour before rescue crews got there."

He has a picture frame containing recovered mementos from the crash, some of them singed by the fire.

As Sowers, 76, reflects on the airliner crash, he says, "God said to me, 'Hey, man, you got more stuff to do.' So I volunteer and play music. It keeps the brain working."

Sowers' music is more to him than just a career. At age 7, Sowers learned to play piano - not because he was forced, but wanted to. He graduated high school in 1948, and within a month was on the road with a 12-piece dance band.

"We occasionally got a night off," he said. "But one year was all I could take."

In 1953, Sowers entered the U.S. Army after receiving his "greetings" (draft) letter. After basic training, he was sent to music school at Fort Gordon, Ga.

He was made bandmaster of a 48-piece marching band, a 12-piece dance band and a six-piece jazz combo. Sowers completed his two-year enlistment and left.

"I headed straight for Mexico City to study percussion for one year," he said. "I wanted a career as a pianist, and I made good."

Sowers went back into the Army in 1957, for active duty in the Intelligence Corps.

He was happy because he got to perform at military bases worldwide until his retirement in 1975.

"I went from (grade) E1 to E5, then warrant officer, then chief warrant officer, then captain and unit commander in Vietnam, and retired at major."

Sowers and his wife of 28 years, Audrey, lived in Oahu, Hawaii, for 17 years after his retirement. They moved to Tucson to be near their son and two daughters.

"We didn't know any better, about the heat that is," he said. "We moved to South Carson City in May 2001."

Sowers became musical director/pianist for the Dayton Misfits Theater Group in 2004. He is also a member of the Vietnam Veterans Association, Veterans of Foreign Wars and Military Officers Association; is on the Douglas Senior Advisory Board; is president of Carson's AARP; and a member of the Carson City Music Club.

"I play because I love it," Sowers said. "And it's the greatest thing to keep my mind alive. I can't live without it."

His favorite genre is jazz, but Sowers said he concentrates on what people want to hear - from "Tiny Bubbles" to "Fiddler on the Roof" tunes.

His dachshund, Sadie, howls along as he plays his baby grand.

• Contact Rhonda Costa-Landers at rcosta-landers@nevadaappeal.com or 881-1223.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment