Fifty years ago on a cold, rainy, foggy Saturday evening, tragedy visited my birthplace of Huntington, West Virginia.
“This town died today,” a local hospital nurse would say that night, according to an Associated Press report.
Save for those few who hadn’t made the trip, the bulk of the Marshall University football team and staff, flying home from a game against East Carolina on Nov. 14, 1970, died when their charter jet crashed less than 2 miles from Tri-State Airport, which sits atop a mountain in Kenova just west of Huntington.
The Southern Airways Douglas DC-9, coming in too low, clipped some treetops, causing a loss of control and sending the jet cartwheeling and flipping into a hillside at 7:36 p.m., erupting into flames.
All 75 people aboard died. The victims included 36 football players, five coaches, eight school administrators, 21 fans and five flight crew. They ranged in age from 19 to 60 and had roots in 13 states. Radio man Gene Morehouse, “The Voice of the Herd,” Marshall athletic director Charlie Kautz, and 20-year-old Jeff Nathan, the sports editor at The Parthenon, the school newspaper, were among them.
The non-players on the Marshall flight included a newly elected state legislator who was one of Huntington’s wealthiest citizens, a city councilman, and the sports director of a local TV station.
As a result of the crash, which claimed eight married couples, 70 children lost at least one parent and 27 were orphaned.
It was the only plane trip planned that season for the Thundering Herd, who traveled to most games by bus. The deadliest accident involving a sports team in U.S. history occurred a little over a month after 14 Wichita State football players and 17 others died in a crash while flying to a game at Utah State.
I was born and adopted in Huntington nine years earlier, moving with my new family to Houston before I could walk. But my three older full siblings — brothers Crys and Robin, and sister Terry — grew up in Huntington. At the time of the crash, Terry was a 15-year-old sophomore at East High School and months earlier, Robin had completed a four-year tour in the Air Force, including a year in Vietnam.
Our oldest brother, Crys, was born in 1944 and graduated from East High in 1962, then spent four years in the Air Force. But he returned to Huntington in 1966 and enrolled at Marshall, where he studied English while working full-time.
Crys has a more vivid recollection of the night of the Marshall crash than many others might. For several years while in college, Crys worked at Huntington’s NBC affiliate, WSAZ-TV, eventually filling every possible duty in the control room. Around the time of the crash, 26-year-old Crys was learning what it took to be a director.
“I was there when the news came over the wire service,” remembers Crys, who’s now 76 and usually worked until the station signed off around midnight.
He also remembers Bos Johnson, the station’s legendary news reporter and anchor who died six years ago, coming into the control room to tell the crew what had happened. Bos, whom I developed a friendship with during my birth family journey and had lunch with on one of my Huntington trips, along with Fritz Leichner Sr., another of WSAZ’s legends, broke into network programming to deliver the solemn news to the community that night.
“I remember that information didn’t travel as quickly back then, so most of the evening was spent trying to gather facts, with several news crews just trying to reach the crash site, which was hopelessly inaccessible on a cold, rainy night,” Crys says. “Of course, the first responders were already witnessing a grim scene.”
His fiancee, Charlene, also a Marshall student, often brought baked goodies to the station for Crys and his colleagues. The night of the crash, she walked into the 2nd Avenue studio west of the Marshall campus, tears on her face.
As Crys recalls, on the campus of 8,500 students and in the city of 73,000, “everyone was in a daze for months afterwards.” He and Charlene married the following April and he graduated from Marshall in the summer of ’72, after which they moved to Colorado, where he’d been stationed in the Air Force. Although they’re not together anymore, they have three awesome kids and five fantastic grandchildren and have never left Colorado.
My birth family felt the devastating effects of the Marshall crash in another way: Sister Terry tells me that one of the team physicians, Ray Hagley, who was aboard the flight, had been her and our mother Betty’s family doctor. His wife, Shirley, also made the trip, and if that’s not sad enough, they left behind six young children — four daughters and two sons. Shirley had just turned 35 a few days earlier, and Ray was three days from his 35th birthday.
The tragedy came as Marshall’s football program had already suffered an earlier trying stretch of 27 games without a win, had been kicked out of its conference for recruiting infractions and had seen its head coach fired. The program hadn’t posted a winning season since 1964.
As was chronicled in the 2006 movie “We Are Marshall” starring Matthew McConaughey as new head coach Jack Lengyel, the university somehow cobbled together a team and brought back football the following year. Marshall didn’t have another winning season until 1984, but the program has had its share of success and a number of players who’ve gone on to long NFL careers, including Randy Moss, Byron Leftwich, Mike Bartrum, Carl Lee, Ahmad Bradshaw, Troy Brown and Chad Pennington.
Marshall won NCAA Division I-AA titles in 1992 and 1996 and lost three other title games in the ’90s, finishing the decade with 113 wins — more than any other college program. The Herd moved up to Division I-A in 1997 and has compiled a 12-3 record in bowl games, including winning seven of its past eight.
For a program that lost so much 50 years ago, I’d have to say Marshall has lived up to the title of “Ashes to Glory,” the 2000 documentary about the program’s comeback.
On Friday, Marshall posthumously awarded degrees to 39 students who were on that plane: the 36 players, an assistant trainer, a student assistant statistician and Nathan, the student sports editor. I call that a beautiful gesture that should’ve happened long ago.
Then, on Saturday, a commemoration of the 50th anniversary was held on the Marshall campus, at the site of a memorial fountain dedicated to the crash victims in 1972 and rededicated in 2008. At the end of each year’s Nov. 14 service, the fountain is turned off, then flows anew the following spring.
I hadn’t known this until reading about Saturday’s service, but famed contemporary Christian singer Michael W. Smith hails from Kenova. The Grammy winner sang “Amazing Grace” to begin the ceremony, then told those gathered about his memories of the crash, eight minutes from his home, according to an Associated Press account.
“It forever changed my life,” said Smith, who was 13 when the crash occurred. “The town died. But the town came back.”
Four members of the 1970 East Carolina team that played Marshall the day of the crash drove eight hours from Greenville, N.C., to attend the ceremony. “I remember having to chase that quarterback all over the field,” former Pirates defensive tackle Chuck Zadnik told The Washington Post of junior Ted Shoebridge. “It was a hard-fought game” — one Marshall lost, 17-14.
Later Saturday, the Marshall football team stayed undefeated with a 42-14 win over Middle Tennessee State. The Herd, now 7-0 and ranked No. 15, wore black uniforms and No. 75 decals on their helmets in honor of the 75 who lost their lives 50 years earlier to the day.
I’m proud of my hometown, and of the university my brother graduated from. Go Herd!