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THE 1970s: From Marshall plane crash to Buffalo Creek, the decade tested wills

Jan. 15, 2009 @ 10:11 AM

Editor's note: This story was originally published Nov. 1, 1999.

Perhaps no decade in the 20th century got off to a more ominous start in the Tri-State than the 1970s.

When the Marshall University football plane went down in a ball of fire at Tri-State Airport on Nov. 14 and claimed the lives of all 75 people aboard, it seemed to establish a depressing trend that permeated Huntington for nearly the next nine years.

The plane crash, the worst sports disaster in U.S. history, was followed by the Buffalo Creek disaster in 1972, the Tug River floods and the icy winter of 1977 and a flagging economy that began to bottom out in 1979. Nationally, the United States withdrew forces from Vietnam, President Richard Nixon resigned in 1974 in the wake of Watergate, and former presidents Lyndon Johnson and Harry S Truman died.

Rock 'n' roll king Elvis Presley died Aug. 16, 1977, shortly before he was scheduled to appear at the Huntington Civic Center. Also, Marshall's dynamic little basketball coach Stu Aberdeen died in June 1979 just when he had begun rebuilding the Thundering Herd program.

U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who was elected governor in 1976, now looks back on the 1970s as "a great learning experience."

"I was so busy putting my fingers in the dike when the state sprung a leak that I couldn't understand what was happening in the late '70s and early 1980s," Rockefeller recalls. "What I couldn't understand was the tremendous fragility of West Virginia's economy, especially in Southern West Virginia.

"The Buffalo Creek disaster, the floods of 1977 and the coal strike of the late 1970s drove that home to me — not when I was governor, but later when I was in Washington and could take a more detached look."

For the people who suffered through those hard times, though, those experiences are forever etched in their memories.

Bos Johnson, the longtime WSAZ-TV news anchor, says the Marshall plane crash was by far the "saddest" news story of his eventful career.

"I was off that night when I heard a news flash about a plane crash at the airport," Johnson recalls. "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 (his 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."

The recovery of the Marshall football program, which is reaching its zenith in 1999, was a continuing emotional roller coaster for long-suffering Thundering Herd fans throughout the 1970s. The school that has the winningest football program in the 1990s suffered through 10 straight losing seasons during the decade in which they compiled a 23-83 record.

The Buffalo Creek disaster, which occurred the morning of Feb. 26, 1972, in Logan County, W.Va., was farther removed from the area, but the devastation was even more profound than that of the plane crash. At one minute to 8 a.m. on that rainy Saturday, three weakened slag impoundments gave way and released 132 million gallons of thick, blackened water on three coal communities in its direct path.

The water thundered down the draw and wiped out the towns of Saunders and Pardee, and most of Lorado. When the wall of water finally traveled 17 miles to the Guyandotte River at Man, 125 people had been killed and a thousand more had been injured. It destroyed 1,700 homes and left 4,000 residents homeless.

One of the survivors was state House of Delegates member Arley Ray Johnson of Huntington. One of Barbara and Charlie Johnson's nine children living in Amherstdale, W.Va., Johnson, then 12 years old, was among the fortunate survivors of the gigantic liquid bowling ball that day. "A man in a pickup truck blew his horn and warned us that the water was coming," he says. "My mom woke everyone up and we ran up on a hill and watched as the water rolled by tearing down houses like match sticks.

"I never knew what water could do until that day. I saw railroad ties wrapped around telephone poles by the force of the water."

The disaster lasted just about 15 minutes, but Johnson says he can remember the devastation as if it were yesterday. The resulting settlement between the state and Pittston Coal Co. still makes him angry.

"Buffalo Creek made me what I am today," he says. "If I have something to say to you, I say it. I have a distrust of government and industry. As far as I'm concerned, the coal company got away with murder in that disaster.

"A $150 million suit was settled for $1 million. The government let the people down because they knew the dams were unsafe but didn't do anything about it."

Compared to Buffalo Creek, the floods that inundated parts of Mingo and Logan counties in 1977 and 1978 and hit Milton in 1978 were merely natural disasters. Although no deaths were recorded when the Tug Fork ripped through Kermit, Williamson and Matewan in August 1977, it left more than 100 families homeless and caused an estimated $2 million in damage.

"The devastation was awful," Rockefeller says. "I was in Mingo County for days, and I really bonded with the people. It bothers me still that many of them moved back into the same area where they had lost their homes."

Williamson and Matewan got flood walls because of the high water that struck in both 1977 and 1978. Milton, which was covered by water from the Mud River in December 1978, is still trying to have the river's bend straightened out to prevent future flooding.

Weather experts say the floods of 1977 and 1978 were caused by back-to-back near-record cold winters. In 1977, the cold weather started in late October and stayed through March. The Ohio River froze over in January 1977, when the thermometer dipped below freezing for 21 days. Among the barges stuck on the river was one carrying salt for Huntington streets.

Many people also remember Jan. 28, 1977, as the day when Rockefeller warned everyone that a blizzard was coming from the west. Everything was shut down in expectation of the storm that had blanketed Lexington, Ky. But, the storm never came.

The winter of 1978 was no bargain either. On Jan. 16, 1978, the Tri-State was covered by nearly 17 inches of snow. It was a snow that took weeks to bring under control.

Gary Bunn was acting city manager, and remembers being awakened by a telephone call from Mayor Harold Frankel.

"It was about 3 in the morning, and Harold asked me if I was awake," Bunn recalls. "I said, `No, why?' He told me to look outside.

"I looked out my window and the snow had covered all the cars on 3rd Avenue. I made it up to the maintenance garage, and spent a lot of hours there over the next week."

Bombarded by complaints from WSAZ-TV anchor Bob Bruner because the city had no snow plow, Bunn acquired a blade from Tri-State Airport.

"We called it the Bruner Blade," Bunn says. "Our goal was to get the downtown under control. The blade helped us a little that winter. But, it was never used again."

The 1970s could be remembered by Huntington residents as the decade that Huntington went into a slump from which it still hasn't recovered. It started with Urban Renewal, a federal program aimed at replacing old buildings with new ones in the downtown area.

The problem was that many of the businesses inside those old buildings never rebuilt inside the new structures in the downtown area. It created a prime area of space between 8th and 10th streets and 2nd and 3rd avenues known as the Superblock that is still not fully developed.

"The problem with Urban Renewal was timing," Mayor Jean Dean says. "The city made a mistake by tearing down the businesses in the Superblock area without having businesses ready to move in.

"The economy started going bad by the late 1970s, and we still haven't fully recovered."

Dean and others said the biggest mistake was building the Civic Arena without including Marshall University as a major tenant.

"To me, this was one of the most serious mistakes the city has made," Dean says. "The plan was to build a Civic Center on top of the flood wall, and including a Marshall basketball arena and a performing arts theater. It would have been beautiful, and both the city and Marshall would have had first-class facilities.

"Instead, we built a scaled down Civic Center in another location because a countywide bond failed."

Marshall, under President Bob Hayes, built its own arena, Cam Henderson Center.

"Building a joint Civic Center was never on paper, but it was a proposal I was trying to work out," Hayes says. "I told the City Council that we would have to work out the details.

"One of the councilmen told me to go back and work on a med school and the city would build the civic center."

Hayes was successful in getting the medical school started in 1975.

"I still think the med school is one of Huntington's greatest success stories of the 20th century," Hayes says. "We need to thank Gov. Arch Moore and Dr. (Albert) Esposito for their roles in making it become a reality."

Merchants in the city also fought plans to build a mall in the downtown area, and also one on 16th Street. Instead, the Huntington Mall was built 15 miles away in an undeveloped area annexed by Barboursville. Construction started in late 1979 and finished in 1981.

Bunn points to some good decisions such as Heritage Station and Harris Riverfront Park. He also bemoans some things that should have happened but didn't.

"I came up with the idea of the 9th Street Plaza," he says. "But it wasn't supposed to be built before the Superblock was finished. David Harris (the Urban Development director) was under pressure by City Council to make something happen.

"It could have been something special."

Ironton also began to suffer from the poor economy in the late 1970s. By December 1979, the city was nearly bankrupt because income tax revenues dipped dramatically when two steel companies shut down.

The city was declared bankrupt in 1980, and went into receivership.

In retrospect, Rockefeller says the whole area was suffering from a new trend of downsizing in industry.

"Our businesses were beginning to realize that they had to trim down to be competitive," he says. "All of that started in the late 1970s, but nobody saw it coming."