Two men recall escaping a tragic outcome

Ben Lockhart and Ervin Farmer are still alive because they decided to drive rather than fly in 1968. Submitted photo.
Ben Lockhart and Ervin Farmer are still alive because they decided to drive rather than fly in 1968. Submitted photo.
Forty-eight years ago, Ervin Farmer and Ben Lockhart decided to hitch a ride with a motor sergeant rather than hop a plane that they had already purchased tickets for. Thanks to that decision, they are still alive today. Thirty-seven people onboard weren’t as fortunate.

On Aug. 9, 1968, Farmer, now 69, and Lockhart, now 68, were both members of the West Virginia Army National Guard. They needed to get from Fort Knox, Ky. to Lewisburg, W.Va., and Farmer was feeling impatient, wanting to get home to his wife, Brenda.

“We didn’t take the flight at the last minute,” Lockhart said. “I wanted to fly. We already had the tickets, but Ervin talked me out of it and said we could cash in our tickets. The motor sergeant saved our lives, but we can’t remember his name…I wish we could remember his name.”

“I was laying on my bunk, and the sergeant came in and asked if we went through West Virginia,” Farmer added. “He said he was driving through and needed someone to help him drive. I told him I wasn’t going because I already had my ticket. I told him I was flying in the morning, but he said, ‘You go with me, I can get you out tonight.’”

“I said sign me up,” Farmer said.

The next day, 32 people were killed when a Piedmont Airlines plane flew into a hillside overlooking Coonskin Park in Charleston, W.Va. The plane, a Fairchild-Hiller 227, was en route from Cincinnati to Roanoke through thick-fog, when it hit short and to the right of the main runway at Kanawha Airport. Five individuals were rushed to the hospital, where all but two lost their lives. Two of the individuals who died trained with Farmer and Lockhart at Fort Knox.

After driving all night, the two were tired. Both remember waking up the next morning and turning on the radio where the were confronted with the news of the crash. It was confirmed when they returned their tickets for a rebate, and they were told that they were “lucky.”

Ben Lockhart (left) and Ervin Farmer before the service at Locust Grove United Methodist Church on Sunday. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett.
Ben Lockhart (left) and Ervin Farmer before the service at Locust Grove United Methodist Church on Sunday. Photo by Kelsey Bartlett.
Some might chalk it up to fate or luck, but both men said that they were saved for a reason¬– to share their story and to teach the love of God.

Lockhart, a McDowell County, W.Va. native, is now pastor of Salem’s Locust Grove United Methodist Church. Farmer, a Marion native, now resides in Kentucky. He was a member of the Lexington Street Quartet for years. The two lost touch for a while, but realized their bond is unbreakable. Farmer visited Lockhart’s church on Sunday to share his testimony and perform gospel music.

Lockhart calls their survival “a God thing.” Both said they had “come-to-God” moments around the same time.

Thirteen years ago, Farmer recalls driving down the road, between the Save-A-Lot grocery store and the bowling alley, when he heard a voice. Already a member of the quartet, the voice told him that he would be saved when he began “believing the words that he was singing.”

Lockhart said he had a similar experience.

“I was sitting at First United Methodist, where I was serving on committees and teaching Sunday School,” Lockhart said. “I kept feeling like God was telling me I could do more, and I couldn’t quite place my thumb on it.”

“I used to break out in tears during songs and had no idea why. This particular Sunday, I was sitting about halfway back when a song came on, and I felt somebody’s hand on my shoulder,” he added. “I turned around and looked, and there was nobody behind me all the way to the back of the church. I’ve been in ministry ever since.”

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