HUNTINGTON -- Well-wishers bidding goodbye to the 75 Marshall University football players, coaches and fans who took off from Kinston, N.C., after a heartbreaking 17-14 loss to East Carolina University in Greenville, couldn't have known that was the last time they would see them alive.
Flight 932, a chartered twin-engine, 95-seat Southern Airways DC-9, had a crew of five -- pilot, a first officer, two stewardesses and a charter coordinator -- when it departed Kinston at 6:38 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14, 1970, for an expected 52-minute fight.
The crew established contact with controllers at Tri-State Airport at 7:23 p.m., announcing that they were descending to 5,000 feet. The controller advised them of rain, fog, smoke and a ragged ceiling. At 7:34, as the plane approached Tri-State from the West, its crew reported passing the airport's outer marker and a controller cleared them to land. The crew requested a "step three" while discussing approach lighting -- flyers' jargon for medium intensity.
"Roger, that's where they are, with the rabbit (sequence flasher)," the controller answered. "Advise when you want them cut."
"Very good," the crew answered.
Those were the last words anyone heard from the plane.
Witnesses at the Ashland Oil refinery across the Big Sandy River in Kentucky saw the big aircraft overhead and thought everything was normal except that it seemed low. One witness reported hearing the roar of its engines accelerate just after it disappeared over the first hill in West Virginia, and in fact the flight data recorder -- found later in the wreckage -- indicated that the crew initiated an effort to scrub the landing, go around and try again.
But at about 7:36, tower personnel saw a red glow west of the airport.
The jet had struck a tree on a hill 5,543 feet west of the runway threshold. It cut a swatch 95 feet wide and 279 feet long through other trees, leaving behind several pieces of its right wing and nose.
The plane dipped to the right, almost inverted and crashed into a hollow nose-first 4,219 feet short of the runway and about 225 feet south of the middle marker. The impact scattered engines and other parts over a wide area, and the resulting ground fire melted most of the fuselage or reduced it to a powder-like substance.
All 75 people on board died. The crash would be labeled the worst air disaster in American sports history.
A temporary morgue was set up in the National Guard armory at the airport and the painstaking and painful processes of mourning and body identification began. Obituary notices ran for several days in the pages of Huntington's newspapers.
On Sunday night, Nov. 15, a memorial service was conducted at the Memorial Field House. Moments of silence, remembrances and prayers followed in stadiums, houses of worship and meeting halls across the nation a week later.
During the following week, classes at Marshall, civic meetings and luncheons and a show sponsored by the Marshall Artists Series were canceled, and government offices were closed.
Ultimately, the bodies of six victims were never identified and, after a mass funeral at the Field House, they were buried together at Spring Hill Cemetery.
"They are still a team," said Dr. Aldred P. Wallace, then pastor of Johnson Memorial United Methodist Church.
The National Transportation Safety Board dryly concluded a year and a half later that the cause of the crash was uncertain.
" ... the probable cause of this accident was the descent below Minimum Descent Altitude during a nonprecision approach under adverse operating conditions, without visual contact with the runway environment," the report said.
The board guessed that happened because of improper use of cockpit instrumentation data or an altimetry systems error.