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TOP STORY: Community forever changed by 1970 Marshall plane crash

Jan. 15, 2009 @ 02:18 PM

HUNTINGTON — The 1970 Marshall football schedule showed the Thundering Herd would visit East Carolina on Nov. 14. The catch to this road trip compared with the other four that season was how the team traveled. Bus out, chartered jet in.

Roughly an hour flight down to Kinston, N.C., on Friday followed by a short bus ride to the game site in Greenville, N.C., meant plenty of time for players and coaches to unwind, do pregame work and rest. For athletic department officials and boosters, sightseeing and shopping were among the options. After the game Saturday, the quick flight home meant players would have time to get out and enjoy what was left of the evening while the coaches and others would make it home in time for a late dinner and talk about their trip.

The scenario, as Marshall fans know and the world has come to learn, went well until the final phase. On that rainy Saturday evening, the Southern Airways jet bringing the team back from that disappointing 17-14 loss to the Pirates earlier in the day crashed short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova. All 75 aboard perished.

Players who had Thundering Herd football on the rise. ... gone. Bright young coaches. ... gone. Athletic department officials. ... gone. Parents, first role models for their children, and influential community leaders who made up the booster brigade. ... gone. Shock reigned over the Marshall campus, Huntington and the nation.

 Web site tells story of crash, rebuilding

The Warner Bros. movie "We Are Marshall" has rekindled many memories of the 1970 and 1971 Marshall University football teams.


A special site here at www.Herald-Dispatch.com titled “1970 Marshall Plane Crash: The Real Story” is full of information:

 

  •  original game stories and rosters of the 1970 and ’71 teams.
  •  photo galleries of the teams, Fairfield Stadium and more.
  •  biographical information about the victims.
  •  stories about Jack Lengyel, Nate Ruffin and Red Dawson.
  •  a history of Marshall football.
  •  coverage of the filming of the movie.
  •  a guestbook for visitors to share their thoughts and memories about the teams.
     

Click here to access the site.

Joe Williams, a Huntington businessman who opted not to make the trip, wept along with his wife, Shirley, after they got word first by television and then confirmation via a telephone call.

“I cried. There was such great sorrow,” Williams said in an interview for a story in The Herald-Dispatch. “You think ‘Why?’ We lost some fine young people. We lost some real leadership, too.”

John Proctor, a Huntington attorney, and his siblings lost their parents, Dr. H.D. “Pete” and Courtney Proctor. John was 5 at the time of the crash.

“I remember waiting for them to come home, and I remember our neighbor Mr. Hagan coming over and telling us,” John Proctor said in another newspaper interview.

One man who was on an emotional roller coaster that night was Bos Johnson, news anchor at WSAZ-TV at the time. He had to fight back emotions to deliver the painful news about the crash. He said this tragedy was by far the “saddest” news story of his distinguished career.

“I was off that night when I heard a news flash about a plane crash at the airport,” Johnson told The Herald-Dispatch in November 1999. “I thought that it had to be the Marshall plane because of the time. I remember going in and being on the air past midnight.

“I don’t really understand how I was able to do it now. Nothing has had more of an impact on this community. Dottie (Bos’ wife) and I attended 13 funerals in a week. I still get teary-eyed when I see the children of some of the victims I knew.”

In Wooster, Ohio, that night, Jack Lengyel, then-football coach at the College of Wooster, and his wife, Sandy, learned about the crash via television.

“My heart just sank,” he said of his reaction. “The atmosphere of players, coaches and fans. It’s like it’s your team. You pray someone survives. But it’s hope against hope. I thought, ‘Oh my God!’ There’s that fraternity of athletics, that bond. I imagine every coach in the country had that same hollow feeling.”

Scheduling conflicts kept some people off the plane. One was Joe Wortham, current business and facilities assistant in the MU athletic department. He was a senior and a student assistant in the sports information office in 1970. Gene Morehouse was the SID and also Voice of the Herd on radio. Student assistants made road trips to handle duties in the press box. The National Teacher’s Exam was scheduled that day, so Wortham stayed behind to take the test. Gary George made the trip instead.

“I was flipping through radio channels and heard a news flash (between 7 and 7:30 p.m.) that a DC9 had crashed,” Wortham said. “I knew the schedule and about the time the team was due back. Boom, my heart drops. I make calls to try and get more information. What I feared, happened. I realized I was plain lucky. At the time (when the football schedule came out), I had a plum and got kind of upset I had to miss it.”

Despite all the grief and horror created by the crash, a memorial service is held each Nov. 14. Descendants of some of the victims no longer dread that date.

“In a way, I was privileged growing up because I was raised by the community,” John Proctor said. “We had great family support and who knows how many hundreds of people looking after us.”

Jerome Hood, brother of running back Joe Hood who died in the crash, made it to his first memorial service in 1999. It was his first visit to Huntington since the crash. Until then, Hood opted to pay his respects from a distance — first in his hometown of Tuscaloosa, Ala., and then his home in Arlington, Texas.

“It felt especially good to be here,” Hood, 43 and retired from the Navy after serving 22 years, said during his visit. “I put it off for years. I didn’t want to face it. It was easier to stay away. Today, I wanted to be here. Joe wanted me to be here.”

Thanks to film  — the documentary “Ashes to Glory” in 2000 and the movie “We Are Marshall” in 2006  — the story about the crash and the recovery effort made by Marshall and Huntington became available to a worldwide audience.

The Warner Brothers Pictures movie begins with the East Carolina game and concludes with the Young Thundering Herd, coached by Lengyel, scoring on the final play to defeat Xavier, 15-13, in its 1971 home opener.

Red Dawson, a Herd assistant coach not on the plane who remained with the Young Herd for two seasons, had a difficult time dealing with the tragedy, as he’d recruited many of the players. Dawson called the movie a positive experience.

“It was a healing process,” Dawson told the Valdosta Daily Times newspaper. “I can’t tell you how much. For 35 years, I didn’t talk about it. I kept it all inside. I didn’t address the issue. Emotionally, I just couldn’t talk about it. But it seems to me since the movie started, it’s been easier to talk about it. The more I’ve talked about it, the easier it’s become.”

Renowned actor Matthew McConaughey played Lengyel in the movie.

“Very seldom do you read about stories like this. It’s based on something that happened. ... history,” McConaughey said during a news conference about the movie at the Keith-Albee Theater. “I was inspired by it. It really happened, and it stayed on my mind. I wanted to be a part of it somehow.”

McConaughey said his philosophy about life is “keep living.” To him, the movie drives that theme home.

“What happens in this story is a version of it. It teaches you about living,” he said. “You have the game of football. A team, a community gets back on the field and back in life. It thrives on memory and hope.”

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