HUNTINGTON -- Daniel and Madge Slay finally got to pay their respects to people they didn't know. The two did so 38 years after the fact. To top it off, it took a movie to inspire the two to drive in from Missouri for the special occasion.
In November 1970, Daniel Slay was 20, a member of the U.S. Marines and stationed in San Diego. On the rainy evening of Nov. 14, the plane bringing the Marshall football team back from a 17-14 loss at East Carolina earlier that Saturday crashed short of the runway at Tri-State Airport in Kenova. All 75 aboard died.
"I was oblivious to that event," Slay said, noting the Vietnam War was the headline grabber at that time. "You hear about it (crash), feel sorry for the people and move on."
Today, Slay is a detective sergeant for the St. Louis Police Department. A few months ago, Slay and his wife Madge pulled up to the television in their home, and out of 180-plus options, they found "We Are Marshall" on HBO. The Warner Brothers Pictures movie released in 2006 told the story about the Marshall crash, rebuilding of the football program, and the healing that the university and Huntington undergoes through that period.
"There was nothing else on," Slay said. "It blew me away. I was hooked. I got so emotional. I cried from beginning to end." He's watched numerous replays on HBO and also has purchased the DVD.
The crash scene comes early in the movie. Right after coach Rick Tolley informs the players, coaches, school officials and fans they're almost home, there's a loud sound and the screen goes blank.
"I thought something happened to the movie or the TV," Slay said with a smile.
At the end of the movie, Slay hears about the memorial service held each Nov. 14 at the Memorial Student Center. Thursday, he and his wife made the seven-hour drive from St. Louis to Huntington. Friday, they joined family members and friends for the moving ceremony. They also planned to tour campus, visit Spring Hill Cemetery (where six victims who were unable to be identified are buried) and Tri-State Airport. Saturday, courtesy of Marshall officials, they had tickets (and parking pass) for the Thundering Herd's homecoming game against UCF at Joan C. Edwards Stadium. They had their trusty digital camera to capture all the special moments.
Slay believes a personal experience helped him grasp what this day means to the Marshall community.
"I lost my dad suddenly," he said. "He was killed in a robbery attempt. It was so sudden, without warning. When I heard about the memorial service, I said I wanted to go to that."
This isn't the first time the Slays formed a connection with a movie. Shortly after "Field of Dreams" came out, Slay headed to Dyersville, Iowa, to see the famous site. He said he sat in the stands, hit balls and played catch with strangers.
"It was quite an experience," he said.
Friday, green and white were the dominant colors at the Student Center. Slay's jacket was black and gold and had Missouri written on both sides. He's certain the jacket took the audience by surprise.
"This jacket in all that green and white," he said. "I'm sure I drew a lot of looks. People were unsure about the connection. I'm sure the word spread some knucklehead from Missouri was here. We had nothing to do with what makes this event. This is one of those emotional things. You had to be there, be a part of it."
The University of Missouri is located in Columbia, about two hours west of St. Louis. Saturday, the nationally ranked Tigers played at Iowa State, but the Slays had the Thundering Herd on their minds.
"I got scouted by Missouri in 1966," Slay said. "I didn't go. My niece went there. Missouri's doing well now. It's our sweetheart. Everybody loves a winner."
The Slays admitted they found the hospitality a bit overwhelming. They posed for pictures with Herd fans. They also took time to answer questions from the media.
"We didn't know what to expect," Slay said. "We've really been taken in by the green and white. This is a chance to live history, walk it. We wanted to connect with the team. I'm not a spiritual person. It's all about the ones who were lost, the people on the plane.
"We came to discover and end up getting discovered. We're outside the circle. This is a tangible and it's why we're here. It's touching for us. It's wonderful what they've done."
Madge said sitting through the movie wasn't easy.
"I would get tears in my eyes and at times I had to leave the room," she said. "I can't believe the people on campus. They're so caring, kind and thoughtful. They make you feel at home. I've traveled to a lot of places. This is one of the best welcomes ever. It was so heartwarming."