Essential reporting in volatile times.

Click here to stay informed and subscribe to Herald-Dispatch.

Click #isupportlocal for more information on supporting our local journalists.

Learn more about HD Media

This story appeared in The Herald-Advertiser on Sunday, Nov. 15, 1970.

A chartered jet airliner carrying the Marshall University football team, coaches and a number of prominent Huntington residents crashed in flames on its approach to Tri-State Airport Saturday evening.

There were no survivors.

Southern Airways of Atlanta, Ga., said its two-engine DC-9 was carrying 70 passengers and five crewmen.

The plane was returning the Marshall football players, most of the coaching staff and a group of supporters from Greenville, N.C., where East Carolina University defeated the Marshall team Saturday afternoon.

The crash occurred about 7:45 p.m. less than a mile west of Tri-State Airport. Weather conditions were poor and light rain was falling.

The Herald-Advertiser's Jack Hardin, the first reporter on the scene some 250 yards east of W.Va. 75 south of Kenova, said:

"There's nothing here but charred bodies. It's terrible."

Bodies and wreckage were scattered over a wide area.

Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr. and Dr. Donald N. Dedmon, Marshall's acting president, rushed to the scene.

Hardin reported a piece of the plane was found on a hillside about a half-mile from the principal crash site. He said sections of bodies were reported found there, too. Searchers were combing the hillside early this morning with the aid of flares.

At 12:10 a.m., the first bodies were placed on National Guard trucks. They were being taken to the National Guard Armory at the airport, where a temporary morgue was established. Hardin said recovery crews were running short of bags to hold the bodies.

Southern Airways of Atlanta said it did not have a passenger list, and refused to identify the crewmen pending notification of next of kin.

The tragedy was "the worst domestic air crash this year," a Federal Aviation Agency spokesman in Washington said, and it was described as one of the worst in history involving an athletic team.

The crash also was the worst in West Virginia air travel history.

Charles Dodrill, president of Tri-State Airport Authority, said if the plane were in its normal approach pattern coming into the airport, it would have had its nose slightly up, traveling at a speed of about 160 miles an hour at the point where it crashed.

A nearby resident, Mrs. Larry Bailey of 1926 Coal Branch Road, told Hardin she saw the jet coming down. She said she heard an explosion and "the plane seemed to come down flat."

The Herald-Advertiser's David A. Peyton reported by radio-telephone that he had walked completely around the scene and "everything is charred beyond belief."

Peyton said it appeared an area about 200 feet in diameter had been leveled and small fires were still burning. He said only the plane's two jet engines and a section of wing were recognizable. "Wreckage is scattered [all] over the place. People who were heard [when] it happened said they heard one big 'thud' and that was all."

The heat from the wreckage was hampering recovery efforts. The scene was described as chaotic. Great numbers of people swarmed through thick underbrush to reach the scene during the first two hours. State police were clearing everybody, including newsmen, from the area by 10 p.m.

A Tri-State Airport employee returning from the scene said, "Bodies are stacked in a big heap, all of them charred. There can't be anyone alive."

Police said every ambulance within a 10-mile radius was alerted. Cabell-Huntington Hospital asked visitors to leave, and sealed off its entrances in gearing for the emergency, but it soon became apparent there would be no survivors.

Hardin and Peyton described the scene as horrifying. "There are charred pieces of bodies all over the place," Hardin said. Peyton said he had counted 12 forms that were recognizable as bodies, but that he saw pieces of bodies, bones and limbs scattered throughout the area.

Many of the bodies had been covered with white plastic by firemen and other emergency authorities at the scene.

Gov. Moore arrived at the scene shortly after 10 p.m.

A ten-man investigative team from the National Transportation Safety Board was dispatched from Washington late Saturday night, according to board chairman John H. Reed.

Less than two months ago, on Oct. 3, one of two chartered planes carrying the Wichita [State] University football team, coaches, boosters and others, crashed in the mountains of Colorado, killing 31 persons, including 13 football players.

Traffic was being turned away from the airport at the foot of the road leading up the hill to the terminal.

Southern Airways released a statement at 10:20 p.m. indicating there were 70 passengers aboard. Southern said it was the first crash in its 21 years of operation.

Fifteen bodies were found near a section of the fuselage -- the biggest section of the craft left intact.

The spectacular crash occurred about one and one-fourth mile east of the Kenova exit of Interstate-64 and large numbers of people were drawn to the scene.

Rev. Homer Pelfrey, a former Wayne County sheriff, said he and Floyd Nichols, a resident of the area, were in their homes when they heard the explosion and were the first to arrive on the scene. Mr. Pelfrey said he found a billfold belonging to one of the Marshall players.

State police said the wreckage was still too hot to permit full recovery operations.

An emergency center was established in the office of John Callebs, Marshall director of development, and a group of local ministers had been assembled to notify relatives of victims as soon as positive identification was made.

Gov. Moore spoke with members of families of the victims who had gathered at the airport. He advised them not to go to the temporary morgue because of "the condition of the bodies." The governor then went to the morgue himself.

Marshall officials said the school's cheerleaders were not aboard the plane.

Marshall students were helping to set up temporary quarters for relatives of the victims at Gullickson Hall -- the Marshall physical education building. Students were carrying mattresses, pillows and sheets and blankets to the building. Area restaurants were supplying food and coffee.

John Young, who lives about a half-mile from the crash site, said he "heard this loud noise -- I ran out to see what it was and all I saw was a big ball of fire. Nobody could have survived that."

Albert Rich, whose house also is about a half mile from the scene, said he first thought the loud noise was lightning. He went out to see.

"I heard this one bang and a minute later there was this terrific bang which shook the whole house. I ran outside to see if there was a storm, and I saw this flash over the hill," Rich said.

He said the plane skimmed the top of an abandoned house before it crashed.

A light rain hampered rescue efforts, where the site was accessible only by a narrow, dirt road which had turned mostly into mud.

It was the second fatal crash at the airport in 16 days. Three Army officers were killed in the crash of a military plane Oct. 29. A fourth passenger, critically injured, survived.

In the earlier crash, the airplane hit a hill 2,700 feet short of the runway, after apparently losing power in one of its two engines.

Military authorities still are investigating the incident.

Approximately 175-200 National Guardsmen were at the airport awaiting instructions. The bulk of the troops, from the 19th Special Forces, returned from field exercises in the Martha area.

Also there were elements of the 254th Transportation Co., which was at the armory when the alert was sounded: the 145th Medical detachment, a helicopter ambulance group, and a detail from Fort Bragg, N.C., who was conducting the weekend maneuvers for the Special Forces at Martha.

Huntington Mayor Robert Hinerman declared a period of mourning until further notice, and requested that all flags over city buildings be flown at half-staff. He asked the public to do the same.

Accompanying him were City Manager Edward Ewing and Gary Bunn, planning director.

City Manager Edward A. Ewing, Mayor Robert Hinerman, and Councilman Owen Duncan, arrived at the airport around 11:30 p.m.

Councilman Duncan said he almost went on the trip. The plane left the airport about 7:30 p.m. Friday.

He said he was just returning from a business trip in Green Bay, Wis., and was leaving the airport when City Councilman Murill Ralsten invited him to go along. Ralsten explained to him the $50 ticket would buy a round trip, one meal, lodging and entrance to the football game.

"I came within a hair of going," Duncan said, adding his sympathies to the families.

A Southern Airways DC-9, apparently exactly like the one which crashed, arrived at Tri-State at 11:50 p.m., carrying a team of investigators for the airline. There were six people aboard the big plane and all made an obvious effort to avoid newsmen. The plane landed from the east, the opposite direction from the attempted landing of the ill-fated Marshall charter plane.

Piedmont Flight 919, the first airplane to land at the airport since the accident, arrived approximately on schedule shortly after midnight.

Stan Champer, one of the passengers on the plane and city editor of the Ashland Daily Independent, said he was originally on a flight from Chicago which was due to land in Huntington at 8:30 p.m.

The passengers were told they would be flying to Roanoke instead of Huntington, Mr. Champer said. At Roanoke the passengers were taken off the Piedmont jet and placed on a Piedmont prop jet for the flight which stopped at Greenbrier Airport, Beckley Airport and Charleston's Kanawha Airport. They arrived four hours late.

Mr. Champer said they were never officially told of the disaster near Huntington. "We thought we were flying over because of bad weather," Mr. Champer said, "but while we were in Roanoke word of the tragedy spread among the passengers quickly."

Mr. Champer was returning from the National Convention of Sigma Delta Chi held last week in Chicago.

Gov. Moore announced early this morning a concurrent investigation would be conducted by state and federal authorities. Airport manager A.O. Cappadony said at 1 a.m. that FAA investigators were expected to arrive in about 45 minutes. Peyton reported that four ambulances had gone to the temporary morgue by 1 a.m.

Cabell County Sheriff Joe Neal, returning to the airport from an inspection of the temporary morgue at the armory, said it was his understanding some bodies were thrown clear of the wreckage and they were identifiable by sight.

He said the National Guard had spread sheets on the floor in preparation for the bodies which he said would probably be brought in in plastic bags. He also said he understood that a cooling unit from the Logan Packing Co. would be brought in to preserve the bodies.

Capt. J.D. Baisden, Company B State Police commander at South Charleston, said no newsmen would be allowed at the temporary morgue until positive identification was made.

Relatives or friends who might give identifications were being allowed within the morgue.

Operations at the airport remained normal and there was to be no interruption of regular flights, officials said.

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.