HUNTINGTON -- People with ties to Marshall University will pause Saturday to remember and honor victims of the greatest sports aviation disaster in history.
It's the 39th anniversary of the 1970 Marshall plane crash. The chartered jet bringing the Thundering Herd back from a 17-14 loss at East Carolina on Nov. 14, 1970, crashed short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova on that rainy night. All 75 aboard died.
Some people will pay respects by attending the memorial service at noon at Memorial Student Center. Mark Smaha will pay respects from a distance at his family's waterfront home on the Puget Sound in Keyport, Wash.
What's different for him now is that he's at peace with himself on this day, as well as any other day, for that matter. The conflicts that haunted him for nearly three decades after the crash have been purged.
"Saturday will be no different," Smaha said Monday night in a telephone interview. "It's the same every day of my life, all day long. Every waking hour, it's (the crash) in my head. I have been on a roller coaster of emotions. By the grace of God, I've been rebuilt, reborn. I'm at peace. This is not a part you audition for."
In 1970, Smaha worked as a Marshall assistant athletic trainer for football and basketball. He was in graduate school, had fallen behind on a class assignment and didn't make the trip. Student trainer Donald Tackett went instead.
"Don said, 'I'd like to go on the trip. I don't know when I'll ever be on a plane again'," Smaha said in a speech to more than 3,000 people during the keynote address at the National Athletic Trainers' Association convention in June in San Antonio. "I remember his eyes. I saw how excited he was. I'll never forget it."
Needless to say, that life-altering decision, followed by being pressed into service to identify bodies and serve as a pallbearer at several funerals, took a toll on Smaha, who was 23 at the time.
For years after the incident, Smaha didn't speak publicly about the details of his experience and the aftermath. He eventually was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder in 1999 and underwent extensive therapy. The treatments worked. Smaha, a certified athletic trainer with more than 32 years on the college level, works part time at Poulsbo (Wash.) Athletic Club, along with wife, Jackie. He's become a motivational speaker, too. A seminar at Pacific Institute in Seattle helped him develop professional speaking skills.
At the seminar, Smaha focused on cognitive psychology, a discipline that investigates the internal mental processes of thought, such as visual processing, memory, problem solving and language.
"The power point is based on how you manage change, how you deal with it," he said. "There's a big shift. We must understand that it is not what happens to us in life but how we react to it. If it's the will of God, I want to be able to reach out."
Smaha's moving story has attracted national attention. His agent, Bruce Machlica, the president of Chatham Communications Corp. (Rochester, N.Y.), handles contracts, endorsements and bookings. An in-the-works story/book/movie is entitled "No Practice Sunday." Smaha said several major movie companies are engaged in high level talks.
"He's one of the top role models in America," Machlica said. "He realizes he's here for a reason. He's on a mission to help others."
Smaha showed how far he's come when he and trainer Bobby Barton, who left Marshall six months before the crash to take a job as trainer at Florida, spoke at the NATA convention.
The 3,000-plus athletic trainers who filled the convention hall were brought to tears as Smaha and Barton shared their moving stories and offered tips for handling grief and transcending tragedy. Barton received grief counseling when he got to Florida and was gradually able to heal. For Smaha, who met Barton for the first time when they were summoned to identify bodies, 29 years passed before help arrived. Smaha cried for the first time during a PTSD treatment.
"I grieved like Niagara Falls," he said in the NATA speech. "I had flashbacks. I had to get help. When I told Jackie, it was crash and burn. I had not given honor to death. Tragedy is my marquee. I had to give honor to it, not shove it in the corner."
Remembering 'those kids'
Before treatment began, Smaha told writer Jordan Bostic for a story in the June 20, 2009, issue of CDN, the NATA convention newspaper, he often would be troubled by memories of the victims.
Smaha worked as head athletic trainer at Washington State for 21 years before retiring in 1999 for health reasons after a trip to the Rose Bowl. Smaha had a picture of the 1970 Marshall team on his wall at Washington State. That photo hangs in the family home now.
"Whenever we played a game, I'd have quiet time, go in and stare at the picture," Smaha said. "Every kid I ever took care of is a reflection of those kids on that plane."
In addition to the crash, Smaha had two other trying moments in his life. Jackie had a battle with ovarian cancer and has been in remission for seven years. Three years ago, Dr. Lynn Smaha, Mark's brother, had a heart attack and died after a 3-mile run.
Thinking back to the crash, Smaha, who is 63, said he listened to the game on the radio and later went out to dinner with friends. Before leaving the office, he noticed an injury report note on athletic trainer Jim Schroer's desk. It had Mark's name on it. It read: "Injuries from Saturday's game, no practice Sunday." Smaha was going to cover the Sunday practice so Schroer could spend time in Cincinnati.
"I thought names will never be printed out on that sheet of paper, only on tombstones," Smaha said in the NATA speech.
Once Smaha got news about the plane being down, he was directed to Cabell Huntington Hospital where the "injured" were scheduled to be taken. He was with Father Robert Scott (team chaplain) and Dr. James Heckman when he was escorted to a conference room to await instructions. On the way, he saw Marshall cheerleaders Cindy and Debbie Chambers. Their father and mother, Dr. Joseph Chambers and Peggy Chambers, were on the plane.
Smaha said West Virginia state troopers came to the hospital to find him. Once they spotted him, they asked Smaha to come with them. During the walk down the empty corridor in the emergency room, the troopers told Smaha all on the plane had been killed and they needed him to go help identify bodies. They got into a police car and sped off to the temporary morgue that had been set up in the National Guard Armory at the airport.
"The National Guard truck pulls up, they unload body bags, there's steam coming off the bags and we start to open them," Smaha said. "The first one for me was Roger Childers. The smell of jet fuel and other stuff, it was not pretty. You go into psychic numbing. You're shaking, but you're able to perform, acutely aware of what's going on. Fear didn't enter into it. Life would not be normal again."
As time passed, Smaha suddenly remembered he hadn't notified his parents who lived in Iowa about the switch he made with Tackett. He thought for sure they were up waiting to get bad news about their son. He made a call at 2 a.m. to let them know he was alive.
"I remember how much I wanted to hug them and hold them, but I couldn't," he said.
Smaha served as Marshall's head trainer the rest of the year, got his master's degree in 1972 and moved on to the University of Washington, where he stayed three years. A three-year stint at the University of Idaho followed and then it was on to Washington State. At the outset, Smaha said he had to battle a case of "survivor guilt."
"I thought 'I trade places on the plane, don't get the (trainer's) job, why not die and get it over with?'" he said. "I didn't forget that. My goal was to get away and become as successful as I could. I thought, 'Where's God in all this?' The fact God has a plan didn't compute then. I felt empty, dead inside."
'I thank God ... for healing'
Smaha said seeing the movie "Saving Private Ryan" changed his views about the situation he left behind in Huntington.
"The movie changed my approach. I wanted to get back, God wanted me to go back, but I wasn't ready yet," he said.
That time finally came in 2001 when Smaha was inducted into the Marshall Sports Medicine Hall of Fame, one of five halls of fame he's in. The most prestigious is the NATA Hall of Fame, but he calls the Marshall induction the most meaningful. He and Jackie flew into Charleston, made the drive down I-64 to Huntington and took in the sites he had been to when the crash occurred. They visited the empty building at the airport and the room from where he called his family, Spring Hill Cemetery and Memorial Student Center. The memorial fountain was off at that time.
"I thank God each and every day for orchestrating my healing and returning to my heritage that Marshall gave me," he said. "And my return was so healing, so special. It helped put a period at the end of this chapter but with a new beginning. That is the realization that my purpose and mission is to share with as many people as I can my story and help them to transcend through tragedy with the grace, peace and love of God."
The movie "We Are Marshall" came out in December 2006. The Warner Bros. Pictures movie told the story about the crash and the school's and Huntington's struggles to recover from the disaster. It ended with the Young Thundering Herd's 15-13 win over Xavier in its first home game in 1971.
Smaha said he saw "We Are Marshall" when it came to television.
"It brought great recognition to the university," he said. "It was uplifting. I'd like to have seen them give more honor to the ones lost. Nate (Ruffin) was a great person and he was portrayed well (by Anthony Mackie).
"My thoughts on where Marshall is today. ... they're similar to when I came back in 2001. I saw the School of Medicine. They're headed in a positive direction. In sports and in the community, they've overcome adversity. What a great college story."
RESIDENCE: Keyport, Wash.
OCCUPATION: Certified athletic trainer. Works part time at Poulsbo Athletic Club providing rehab services to clients recovering from injury or surgery.
CHILDREN: Holly, married, two children, No. 1 buyer for Nordstrom, lives just east of Seattle. Ryan, married, lives in Pullman, Wash., is graduate assistant for Washington State football team.
EDUCATION: Undergraduate, Iowa State University. Master's degree, Marshall University.
ACHIEVEMENTS: In five halls of fame, including NATA Hall of Fame. Former president of NATA (1988-92). Most Distinguished Athletic Trainer Award (1994).