Plane crash victims remembered
HUNTINGTON — Marshall University and the city of Huntington paused Wednesday afternoon to remember what happened 42 years ago on Nov. 14, 1970.
That day changed Marshall forever, as 75 members of the football team, coaching staff, supporters and crew died when the chartered DC-9 jetliner crashed on its way back from a game at East Carolina.
That day, however, gave Marshall its own story and has given it an identity not found anywhere else in the country.
"I think it makes us much stronger," freshman Tiffany Henderson said. "We're not just a regular school. We're a family. (The crash) gives us all a connection."
That sentiment was repeated several times by students attending the ceremony, which took place at noon surrounding the Memorial Student Fountain on campus, and by some of the speakers.
Athletic Director Mike Hamrick said no other school has a story like Marshall's -- a story that has inspired people from all throughout the country, President Stephen Kopp added.
The Marshall football program, as told through books, a documentary film and a major motion picture, did not fold. It helped change NCAA policy by allowing freshmen to play, and that gave birth to the Young Thundering Herd. Those guys played for their fallen teammates, just as today's players do, head football coach Doc Holliday said.
"The football program did not stop on Nov. 14, 1970. It only rededicated itself," Holliday said. "From that day on, it began to stand for more than a college football game played on Saturdays.
"Marshall University football will always be played to honor those lost on Nov. 14, 1970," he continued. "Win or lose, we play to honor those we lost."
One of those players was kicker Marcelo Lajterman, whose brother, Moe, delivered the keynote speech at the memorial ceremony Wednesday.
Mo Lajterman was 17 when the crash took place. He wanted to be a kicker like his brother and noted that both had aspirations of turning their soccer-style kicking into professional football careers.
He recalled being on the phone with his brother shortly before the game, his mother on another phone in the house. They talked of reuniting for Thanksgiving and having the family home together. Marcelo Lajterman said getting to fly to the East Carolina game made it feel like he was on a professional team, Mo Lajterman recalled.
"I didn't know it would be the last time I'd hear his voice," he told the packed crowd of students, employees and community members. "He was my idol and my best friend."
The day of the crash, he went to the Jersey shore with his girlfriend and her family. They got a flat tire and stopped at a service station along the highway. While there, he saw a news bulletin flash across the television screen about a plane crash in West Virginia. A few minutes later, it was confirmed that the crash involved the Marshall football team.
"Life for us was never the same," Lajterman said. "No matter how many years go by, it still feels like yesterday."
Lajterman said he made a promise to his brother that day that he'd work hard to make it to the pros as a kicker. Four years later, he kicked the winning field goal for a professional team in the World Football League.
"All I could think of was the promise to Marcelo," said Lajterman, who went on to kick for the New York Giants and New York Jets before an injury forced him to retire.
The ceremony also included a gift from the city of Tuscaloosa, Ala., where four of the players who died played high school football together. It was a photo taken of Freddie Wilson, Larry Sanders, Joe Hood and Robert VanHorn. It hangs in an exhibit in Tuscaloosa, and the mayor and city council decided it needed to hang in Huntington, too, said Tracy Croom, the city clerk in Tuscaloosa.
At the conclusion of the memorial ceremony, the wreath was laid in front of the fountain, which was turned off for the winter, as it always is on Nov. 14. Then, the names of all those who died were read, and a white rose was laid on the base of the fountain in memory of each person.
And it's in that tradition the lives of those lost Nov. 14, 1970, continue on.
"The worst tragedy to befall us would be to forget what happened," Kopp said.