“Marshall Plane Crash–50Years Ago”
Your life is forever shaped by your experiences — good, bad, happy, sad, tragic and otherwise.
50-years ago, tomorrow evening, a memory forever branded on my heart.
The end of the college football season brings many emotions for those involved. Excitement of a possible bowl bid if you have had a good season. Disappointment at the end of losing season. Sadness when coaching friends lose their jobs. Heated rivalries like UCLA-USC, Cal-Stanford and Michigan-Ohio State.
The end of November at Marshall has a different meaning — if you were there, when the program went down, lives were lost, tears flowed, fires raged, and a community was forever impacted.
West Virginia is a poor coal mining state. Huntington is a small industrialized city. Marshall University was a football program in trouble, expelled from the Mid American Conference for NCAA violations. And then it all ended.
This weekend in November, that year 1970, forever changed the program, the school, the state and me.
I close my eyes and I forever see the faces I knew. I close my eyes, and I forever remember the fire on the hillside. I close my eyes, and I cannot forget the scenes, the smell, the sounds and the despair that has never left my soul.
November 14. I was the voice of the Ohio University Bobcats. We played at Penn State that day, a game I broadcasted. A game that Penn State won in blowout fashion when they picked off six passes. Jim Laslavic, KNSD-TV 7-39 Sports Director and a former Charger, played in that game for the Nittany Lions. It was cold, rainy.
En route home on a bumpy plane flight, the weather was so bad, they could not serve us meals. Driving rains, wind and turbulence en route to Athens, Ohio.
We landed at a small airport in Appalachia, with police cars with flashing lights shining near the tower. State patrol officers met the coaching staff as the doors opened. We sat and waited. And then an announcement — there had been another plane that had flown home in that storm the same time we did. It didn’t land. The team we were to play the next weekend was gone.
The Marshall Thundering Herd plane had gone down, crashing into a hillside at Tri-State Airport in Huntington. All 75 on board — players, coaches, alumni, athletic officials and media members — perished in an instant in a fiery crash in that same storm, just short of the airport.
I hitched a ride with a TV camera crew and went 90 miles down the river to Huntington, just across the border.
This weekend, that year, I saw things that forever left an imprint on my soul. Searing fires raged out of control. A mountainside scorched. Debris everywhere. Ambulances, police cruisers, trucks spread across the hillside, looking for any and all evidence of life. In that misty, foggy rain, none survived.
What followed was the depth of sadness I had never ever witnessed nor experienced. The armory in Huntington became a morgue. Caskets were brought to the field house. Body bag after body bag was brought inside.
The grief was enormous. Churches stayed open all night. With a crew, we chronicled what we saw, numbed by the horrors. All night, sirens screamed up and down what would become the Big Green Highway. Morning brought enormous sadness and the crushing reality of athletes lives lost, families torn apart, children left without parents, parents without players.
The days became a blur of press conferences, a gripping on-campus candlelight service and then the funeral processions, with hearses moving back and forth across town to Spring Hill cemetery, which sits on a hillside above then-Fairfield Stadium, where the Thundering Herd played.
The following weekend, with no game to be played, I took part in a football memorial service in the Ohio Stadium. The Bobcats were supposed to play the Herd at 1 p.m. that day. They opened the Ohio side of the stadium that was filled with students, faculty and towns people. The visiting side of the stadium was closed. That would have been the Marshall sideline.
The Ohio team, decked out in its green home jerseys, lined up as if there would be a national anthem. Instead they sang Amazing Grace to the opposite sideline, where Marshall players would have stood.
A lone football on a tee sat at the 50-yard line, where a kickoff would have taken place. Instead of a handshake with the captains, we held hands, prayed and wept.
They played football the following year at Marshall. They rebuilt and lost. They became a Division 1-AA power, and eventually produced NFL players like Randy Moss, Chad Pennington and Byron Leftwich.
But each year this weekend, they always remember the Thundering Herd and that night in 1970. They built a fountain in the center of the campus, and this weekend, they will turn that fountain off, to remember the team, and the game that never was played.
At Spring Hill cemetery on a corner lot, six bodies that were never identified because of the intense fire, are buried together, along with a former teammate, Nate Ruffin, who missed the trip that year, and came back and played the following year as its captain. He died of kidney disease and wished to be buried with his fallen teammates.
I close my eyes and see the face of quarterback Ted Shoebridge, broadcaster Gene Morehouse, TV anchor Ken Jones, hear the booming voice of coach Rick Tolley, see the stare of linebacker Jerry Stainback and remember the jolly laugh of offensive lineman Dave Griffith. People I had met during the prior year leading to the crash.
Then, the spectacular movie “We Are Marshall” hit the screens — a story so true, it inspired tears about the crash, the deaths, and the rebirth of Marshall University as a school and football program. It is out in DVD now, and an amazing description of lives lost, triumph over tragedy, and the fire that made a university strong again.
In late November we have games to cover and bowls to prepare for. In late November, I feel a gray cloud over my heart. I think of those kids, their green and white uniforms, that hillside, the Southern Airlines fuselage, the fires, the smell, the town and the sounds.
Names, faces and places I remember on a college football Saturday we never got to experience.