HUNTINGTON  -- The 1960s were a busy decade for Katherine and Brian O'Connor.

They married in 1962, had two children in the following four years, and Brian finished his Ph.D. at University of Denver in Colorado before taking a job at Marshall University as the dean of Admissions in 1969.

It was at the beginning of the next decade, however, that their life together would come to a sudden halt on Nov. 14 when a plane containing Brian and 74 others crashed in Kenova just moments before it was to land.

In the days that would follow, hundreds waited to hear something of their family members who they believed had been in the crash. But Katherine waited the longest. Her husband's body was the last to be identified.

"I would say I was in a state of shock and pretty much numbness for that first week," Katherine (now Katherine O'Connor Beiter) said.

After that initial shock, she later realized that she never fully dealt with the emotions she was feeling, but found a way to cope.

"Back then, there were no grief counselors and no grief support groups," Beiter said. "It was at that time that friends shared what it meant to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. That was a big step for me, that's really what made all the difference."

In 1978, in addition to the support from faith and friends, she began to channel her grief through Hospice care, a field that, though retired, she still keeps a hand in today.

With the tragedy being 3 1/2 decades in her past, is it any wonder that the news of a film version of the Marshall story came as something of a shock?

"My first reaction was, 'How could they possibly do that?' " Beiter said. "I just felt this awful feeling. How could they take a tragedy and make millions of dollars on it?

"My second reaction was: 'Who's Matthew McConaughey?' "

Beiter did her own research during the following months, not just about "We Are Marshall" star McConaughey, but about those making the film. Through her research, she learned that they would be filming real-life family members and others connected to Marshall near the Memorial Fountain. Though she was living in upstate New York, Beiter knew she had to be there.

Not only did she fly in, her son, David Brian O'Connor, also felt compelled to travel there from Texas. Her now 40-year-old daughter, Ruth Ann, made a 10-hour drive with her family to be involved.

It was an impromptu reunion, all at the spiritual epicenter at one of the darkest moments in the family's history.

"It was an awesome experience, I can't even describe it," Beiter said. "It was almost kind of a, this may sound kind of dumb, but a holy moment."

The most important thing to Beiter, though, was that she was able to meet others who lost family in the crash.

"We had left after a year-and-a-half to return to upstate New York where my family was from, so my kids never knew any of the other children, so it was so neat to hear them interact with other children who had also lost a dad ... or a dad and a mom."

One of those who had lost both was Cindy Arnold Pierce.

Her parents, Charles Arnold and Rachel Baker Arnold, were among the 75 people killed in the Marshall plane crash Nov. 14, 1970. Her parents relocated their family to Huntington one year earlier in order for her father to run the office of Mutual of Omaha. He was the general agent. Her mother was a nurse.

The crash orphaned Cindy, leaving her and her sisters in an unfamiliar city with few they were close to. These days, Cindy Arnold Pierce lives in Freeland, Mich.

She has seen the film three times now, and each time it has had a different effect.

The first was in that special screening only for family members of those in the crash, in which Beiter was also in attendance.

"You could have heard a pin drop in there," Pierce said. "I think everyone was filled with so many emotions. Also, knowing all the other family members were right in front or behind you was intense. I know my heart went out to them as well as my sisters'."

She was then able to attend the premiere later that night, describing it as a much different, lighter experience, where she was able to enjoy the film with the rest of the audience.

The third time she saw the film was with other friends from Michigan. She noticed after the credits rolled that her friends seemed to be more somber than usual.

"Visibly upset, my good friend inquired how I was doing. Surprisingly, I seemed to be more in control than all of them," Pierce said. "Then I realized, my friends knew I had lost my parents when I was 12, we had talked about it often. However, the movie really showed them, made them feel."

The movie also proved to be cathartic for at least one of those who were portrayed in the film: coach Red Dawson, who's played in the movie by actor Matthew Fox.

Dawson said that he had difficulty getting through the script initially, that it "[brought] all the worms and spiders back."

Now though, after the film's release, the former coach typifies it as a positive experience.

"It was a healing process," Dawson told the Valdosta Daily Times. "I can't tell you how much. For 35 years, I didn't talk about it. I kept it all inside. I didn't address the issue. Emotionally, I just couldn't talk about it. But it seems to me since the movie started, it's been easier to talk about it. The more I've talked about it, the easier it's become."

Beiter had a similar experience, perhaps for the first time dealing with some of her own "worms and spiders."

"I never really focused on the fact that my husband died in a fiery plane crash, everybody kept the TV and newspapers away from me that whole week," Beiter said. "The movie made that more real to me, but that was OK."

She said that seeing the film finally made her confront the tragedy that she had to numb herself to more than 30 years ago. But she said by the end of the experience, she found herself stronger.

"Seeing the movie opened up a wound that I thought had already healed," Beiter said. "It brought forth some definite pain and grief, but I know that that was important. Even though it was painful, I knew that it's important that we work through even some of the deepest stuff."

 

Tags

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
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.