Published Dec. 31, 1999
HUNTINGTON -- Not quite 30 years later, it is still known as just "The Crash."
On a rainy, foggy, cold November night in 1970, life changed forever in Huntington. An airplane, carrying the Marshall University football team, its coaches and some of the top leaders in the city crashed into the side of a hill as it descended into Tri-State Airport, killing everyone on board.
The crash shocked the university, the city and the state and plunged the community into a state of grief that lingers to this day.
Almost three decades later, the crash is still considered the worst sports accident in U.S. history and it is the top local story of the century.
"I'm not surprised it still gets a lot of attention," said Bob Bailey, a lifelong Huntington resident, a 1970 graduate of Marshall and current president of Huntington City Council. "People in this community lost their family and friends in the crash, and every November they feel the pain of it again. I don't think it will ever be forgotten."
Thirty-seven members of the football team, eight coaches and university administrators, 25 community members and five crew members were flying back to Huntington from Greenville, N.C., when the plane crashed on Nov. 14, 1970.
The game that day against East Carolina had been close. The two teams matched each other score for score through the first three quarters, but Marshall dropped behind when ECU scored a field goal in the fourth quarter. With 90 seconds left on the clock, Marshall attempted to get itself within field goal range to tie the score.
On the third down with 10 yards to go, quarterback Ted Shoebridge dropped back for a pass and was collared by an ECU player. He got off the pass before he was downed, but was called for intentional grounding. Marshall received a five-yard penalty and lost the game.
The loss disappointed the team, which was hoping to end the season a with winning record.
The team left North Carolina about 6 p.m. and prepared for a quiet ride home aboard a chartered Southern Airways DC9. About 7:45 p.m., the plane began its descent to Tri-State Airport.
It was rainy and foggy. Visibility was poor. According to news reports, witnesses remember seeing the plane come in low from the west, but lost sight of it after it passed over a hill. Moments later, they saw a brilliant flash that lasted 15 to 20 seconds, then diminished to a dull glow.
The National Transportation Safety Board said the 95-seat plane clipped trees along a ridge just west of the airport and West Virginia 75. Tumbling across the hillside, it cut a 95-foot swath in the trees. The plane slammed into a ridge on the east side of the highway at 160 miles per hour and burst into flames.
Everyone was killed instantly.
Retired Herald-Dispatch reporter Jack Hardin heard about the crash not long after returning to his Ceredo home from his day shift that Saturday at The Herald-Advertiser, the combined Sunday newspaper of The Herald-Dispatch and The Huntington Advertiser.
"I had put on my pajamas and bathrobe and was sitting in the basement watching television when the telephone rang and my sons heard sirens go up and down the road," he said. "My sons said 'Daddy something big is happening. Let's go.' I didn't want to. I just left work. The phone rang and a woman said 'Jack, there's been a big plane crash. I doubt if there are any survivors.' I got my wife and two kids and got in the car."
Hardin drove up to the airport, where one of his friends spotted him. He pulled over, left his family in the car and went walking down over the hill with his friend.
"I started to crawl over the fence the firefighters put up and one of them called out to me 'Jack, watch where you're stepping.' I thought I was stepping on twigs and branches. It was a body," he said.
People said they found parts of a plane with E-R-N on the wing and worried it was an Eastern Airlines flight, he said. But then, workers realized Marshall had chartered a Southern Airlines plane to North Carolina.
"I thought, 'Oh no, it's the Marshall plane,' " he said.
He called the newspaper, told them the news and returned to continue his crash coverage. He stayed at the site most of the night, getting information and calling in updates.
When then-Gov. Arch Moore Jr. arrived on the scene, Hardin was one of the first people to talk to him. After the interview, the governor asked Hardin what he should do.
"I told him to go to the terminal and comfort the survivors. They were there, and they knew something happened. They needed the governor there," Hardin said.
He didn't remember until a few hours later that his family was still sitting on the highway.
"A relative had to come and pick them up," he said.
News of the crash spread quickly through the city, first as rumors, and then as special broadcasts on TV. That's how Bailey learned of the crash.
"I listened to the game that day, and I was at home that night when I heard it crashed," he said. "There was just a chill that went through the bones. That's never gone away, that feeling, when I think about it.
"I had classes with all those kids," he added. 'I had classes with (assistant coach) Deke Brackett and boxed with (Huntington doctor) Ray Hagley's son. I had a lot of friends on that plane."
Crews worked at the scene through the night and returned the next day to recover all of the bodies. Hardin also returned that Sunday and walked around the muddy, boggy site with state pathologists who were charged with identifying the remains. They were able to identify the remains of everyone except six players -- Kevin Gilmore, Allen Skeens, Barry Nash, Tom Zboril, Dave Griffith and Tom Brown.
The city itself, upon learning that the team and many of the community's movers and shakers had died, was in shock and mourning. Classes were dismissed for two days. Downtown businesses and offices were closed. Flowers lined the sidewalks and storefronts.
Flags from Boyd County, Ky., to Mason County, W.Va., flew at half-staff.
"It reminded me of the day Kennedy died," Bailey said. '"It was so unbelievable that this could happen to the team. So many good people died. There were city leaders and county leaders on that plane -- a councilman and businessmen. It was unbelievable."
The day after the crash, more than 7,000 people crowded into Memorial Field House to attend a memorial service for the 75 dead. On stage were Nathaniel Ruffin, a surviving co-captain of the team, who did not travel because of an injury; Dr. Leo Jenkins, president of East Carolina University; Acting Marshall President Donald Dedmon; Student Body President Mike Grant; and Gov. Moore.
Funerals occurred one after another, as many as three or four per day.
"It was chaos," Hardin recalled.
But it would take awhile for Hardin to let that chaos touch him.
"It didn't dawn on me until a few days later what really happened," he said. "I did my job. Then one day while I was at home, I started to cry. I knew all of the boys and most of the people on the plane were my friends. I worked every Saturday and had a press pass to walk the field. I came to know every one of them."
Condolences flooded in from across the nation, as did donations to a special memorial fund established just days after the crash.
Memorial services were held on college football fields across the nation a week after the crash and The Herald-Dispatch reported on Nov. 25, 1970, that West Virginia University's football team would paint green crosses on their helmets in honor of Marshall's team.
"It may seem an insignificant gesture, but we feel we must honor them somehow," former WVU coach Bobby Bowden said at the time. "There's nothing you can do to bring them back or ease the sorrow. ... This accident has affected Marshall, Huntington, our players, the whole state."
Over time, the pain of the crash has lessened and the community and university have moved on. But no one has forgotten.
"I covered many major stories, but this was by far the greatest tragedy I ever covered," Hardin said. "It was terrible and we will never forget them, but I think we do a good job remembering them."
After a tragedy like that, some still find it hard to believe the team has been able to climb to the heights it has over the last decade. In 1997, the team jumped from Division I-AA to I-A after having 13 winning seasons in the Southern Conference. The same year, the team won its first Mid-American Conference title, which it has won every year since.
This year, the Thundering Herd football team was undefeated.
"This community and its people are champions," Bailey said. "It really was 'Ashes to Glory.' We may move on and time may pass, but there will always be a memorial somewhere in Huntington on November 14."