Published Nov. 13, 2005
HUNTINGTON -- Gary Bunn never has forgotten that night. He's afraid he never will.
The 71-year-old Huntington man was the city's planning director when 75 Marshall University players, coaches and fans died in a plane crash as they returned to Tri-State Airport in 1970. He also was commander of Company B, 2nd Battalion, 19th Special Forces Group, of the West Virginia Army National Guard.
In fact, that's what saved him from being on the doomed plane. And it's also what handed him an up-close-and-personal look at the horror he had avoided.
Actually, he hasn't escaped some of the trauma. You can see it in his face when he revisits the crash site -- as he did in 2005.
"I still have nightmares," he said softly.
City Councilman Murrill Ralsten had invited Bunn and his wife Nancy to fly on the chartered jet to the Marshall-East Carolina University game at Greenville, N.C., when he stopped in Ralsten's shop to buy a tie and belt. But when Bunn got home, his wife reminded him that he had a drill that weekend.
"The National Guard saved our lives," Bunn said.
On that fateful Saturday, a Special Forces team from Fort Bragg, N.C., came up to conduct some airborne operations with Company B, and the two units scheduled a jump at DZ-Guyan, near the Esquire Country Club. But when Bunn, who served as jumpmaster, stuck his head out the door of the
C-119 in which they were flying and saw it was pouring rain, he aborted the jump.
That evening, he told his troops they would try the jump again on Sunday and sent them back out to Barboursville for night maneuvers. When Bunn got home, his wife met him at the door.
"Something terrible just happened at the airport," she said. "A big plane has crashed."
Bunn returned immediately. His troops already had driven a deuce-and-a-half full of stretchers to the crash site in a hollow between the Tolsia Highway (now U.S. 52) and Coal Branch Road, expecting to find survivors.
The descending Southern Airways DC-9, flying eastward toward the runway, was much lower than it should have been on that damp, foggy evening, the National Transportation Safety Board later concluded. At about 7:35 p.m., its wings and wheels struck several trees on a high hill west of the highway and cut a sickening swath through them for hundreds of feet. The jet rolled, inverted and plunged nose-first into the gulley, exploding on impact. All in about five seconds.
"The heat was so intense, you couldn't get closer than 100 yards," Bunn said. "It burned for a day or two. It's unreal where it ended up, isn't it?"
Still not sure what the burning wreckage was, Bunn drove up to the armory. At that point, there were "rumors" it was the Marshall plane.
"I turned numb and sick to my stomach," he said. "Nancy and I could have been on that thing."
About two hours later, Gov. Arch A. Moore Jr. and State Police Supt. Fred Donohoe showed up, and the governor placed several members of Company B on state active duty to help with recovery, victim identification and security. Guardsmen were bringing human remains into the armory in garbage bags -- there were no body bags available until Walter "Lefty" Rollins brought several from Rollins Funeral Home.
"I identified a lot of people myself," Bunn said. "Some bodies weren't burned. I remember a tackle who had been thrown out of the plane; he had tree limbs all through his body. After that, our guys started looking around all over the woods to see if anybody survived."
As the days and nights dragged on, the Guard worked with the FBI and a forensics team from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. Except for one brief respite to go home and change uniforms -- "I threw the old one in the garbage" -- Bunn stayed at the armory for a week, 24/7.
"It was morbid," he said. "We used I-don't-know-how-many gallons of disinfectant and preserving powder. "It still gives me cold chills."
The longer Bunn stared at the crash site, the more memories surfaced.
"Part of our mission was security, keeping people away from the crash scene and the armory, which we had turned into a temporary morgue," he said. "One day we caught a photographer from a national magazine on top of the water tower, trying to shoot all those bodies through the windows on top of the armory."
Bunn, enraged, ordered prompt and decisive action.
"Tell that guy he has about five seconds to get down, or we'll bring him down with a bullet," he told his troops.
In the years since, Bunn has wrestled with guilt because he escaped the flight that doomed many of his personal friends.
"I should have been on that plane," he said. "It goes through your mind all the time. I wake up sometimes in a cold sweat."
Bunn mentioned a couple of his men, who later added their own memories to that night's tragic tapestry. Take, for example, Ron Rutherford, 75, of Culloden, who was a sergeant major in Company B at the time.
"I was in combat in Korea for over a year, and I never saw anything worse," he said.
Rutherford said he was alone at the armory when the plane crashed. He heard a sound, but thought it was a plane breaking the sound barrier. The first inkling he had of the true nature of the tragedy hit him when he got a call from a national newscaster in New York.
That's about the time Marion Priestly, 70, of Huntington, who lived in Cincinnati at the time, drove in for the drill late. Rutherford dispatched him to walk up to the tower and see what had happened.
"I saw the Marshall bus waiting," said Priestly, who was a master sergeant then. "The driver was worried. They were supposed to be in by then, and he had heard a noise and saw a flash."
Confirming the worst in the tower, Priestly hurried back to the armory and Rutherford sent him out to Barboursville to bring back the troops on maneuvers. Priestly had returned by the time they started bringing in the bodies.
"You couldn't recognize anything," he said. "It's an unforgettable thing."
After Bunn had thoroughly looked over the crash site, he climbed back in his Ford Explorer and rubbed his chin with his hand. He sat there for a few moments, pensive, seeming reluctant to leave.
"Oh boy," he muttered, and turned on the ignition.