Published Nov. 12, 2000
HUNTINGTON -- Thirty years later, Damon Slone cries easily and without shame when he recalls the Marshall University plane crash that killed most members of the Thundering Herd football team.
In 1970, he was a young man of 20. Now, he's 50.
Then, he volunteered with the Wayne County Civil Defense. His job on the cold, rainy, eerie night of Nov. 14, 1970, was to collect scattered body parts from the crash that shocked the nation, and put them in body bags. The parts would be sorted later.
Slone was supposed to be brave that night, and a swig or two of Jack Daniels helped, though not much.
Now, he is chief investigator with West Virginia Secretary of State Ken Hechler's office, the career he chose after 16 years as a Huntington police officer. He also ministers at the Sandhill Church of Christ in South Shore, Ky.
Though his life has taken contrasting paths the past three decades, his memory of that night 30 years ago Tuesday when 75 people died and he helped recover their bodies remains constant. Simply put, it was 201/2 hours of horror.
"I close my eyes and see the fire," he says today, as a tear trickles from the corner of his eye and down his cheek. "I'll never forget it. I've gotten over it, but I'll never forget it."
Slone, who lives in Barboursville, was one of more than 100 volunteers who gathered at the crash site near Tri-State Airport. They performed a variety of duties, from directing traffic to working a makeshift morgue at the airport.
The rescue workers will be among those honored and remembered during Tuesday's annual memorial service on the Marshall Memorial Student Center plaza. The event starts at 7 p.m.
Slone lived in Westmoreland in 1970 with his wife and 6-month-old son. He'd been to St. Mary's Hospital on that nasty Saturday to visit his mother, who was recovering from a heart attack. He'd planned on spending the rest of the evening at home, but one call changed everything.
"They said, 'We have another plane down,' " Slone says. "A lot of people don't remember, but we'd had two crashes not long before then. One was a military plane with seven aboard and the other was a Cessna with a family on board."
Immediately after the call, Slone placed a flashing red light on top of his Volkswagen Beetle and took off for the crash site east of West Virginia 75. The plane had struck treetops on a ridge west of the highway, flipped and smashed upside down against the hillside on the other side of the road.
The plane exploded and burst into flames, killing everyone instantly.
"The fire department hadn't arrived yet," Slone says, recalling his first look at the crash site. "But I could hear all the sirens."
And he could see the fire. Despite the flames, he and others thought someone might have survived. When they figured out that the plane had clipped the trees, they determined that the collision might have taken the bottom out of the plane and some seats could have fallen out.
So, they searched the other side of 75, using flares to see, all the while staggering in the knee-high mud and freezing from the rain and cold temperatures. They found nothing.
Even then, the rescue workers had no idea this was the Marshall plane.
"I just knew it was a large plane down," Slone says. "Then word came down it was Marshall."
Their responsibilities changed as time wore on, from rescue to recovery. It was a gruesome task and extremely difficult. Many of the workers who, like Slone, were asked to look for body parts, ranged in age from 16 to 22.
Many got sick more than once during the search. They'd pause from time to time to throw up, then get back at it.
"I was picking up guys my own age," Slone says of the Marshall players. "It's really too graphic to talk about, but people need to know what they went through."
Some of those involved in the recovery, particularly the younger ones, could still be having flashbacks from that night, said Dr. Daniel Cowell, chairman of Marshall's department of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at the Joan C. Edwards School of Medicine.
He said anyone involved in or witness to "a horrific event -- an event well beyond the usual human experience, like the Marshall crash" is a candidate for post-traumatic stress syndrome.
The symptoms are many, ranging from jitters, anxiety and stress that might last a few months after the event, to nightmares, vivid replays and intrusive thoughts, which might still be occurring. They also might feel socially withdrawn, Cowell said.
"It would not be surprising whatsoever for emergency workers, firemen, even reporters who were at the scene, people who had seen mangled body parts, to have these symptoms," Cowell said. "It's tremendously powerful. It can leave an imprint for a lifetime."
Tuesday's service should help, Cowell said, but future get-togethers away from a public setting probably would help more.
Slone says the rescue workers became numb after a while that night and worked on adrenaline. He stayed at the scene until sometime between 3 and 5 p.m. the next day. Though exhausted, he could not sleep that night or the next.
"Then I wrote a poem called 'The football game from the sky,' " Slone says, acknowledging that he is not a poet. "It talked about how God needed a football team up there. After I wrote it, I finally went to sleep."
Today, he knows the magnitude of Marshall's rise from the ashes to the glory of a No. 10 national ranking last year. He and the other rescuers were there, close up, to see the devastation.
"Win or lose, we should be proud of the fact that they came from nothing," Slone says. "Nothing."
Today, it's the players and coaches who are cheered from week to week. Slone would love to see, just one time, his fellow rescuers from that night, and other volunteers from today, get their due.
"These volunteers, we need them," he says, his voice choking.
"We need to thank them every day. These people really care. Sometimes, it's nice to just say thank you."