Denis Smith is a retired educator, now living in Ohio. He remembers here a day that will forever haunt him.

“I’m alive. Nobody else is … they’re all dead.” It Happened Fifty Years Ago Today.

The other evening, I had a dream about hearing sirens in the distance, shrill sounds which break the silence of an otherwise uneventful and quiet night.

Lest you think I’m in need of clinical attention, there was an underlying reason for me to be dreaming about the sounds of sirens. Let me explain.

It is said that each generation constructs a series of markers which serve to catalog collective life experiences for the purpose of identifying the most significant events of a particular era. For my parents’ generation, the markers were the Great Flu of 1918, the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, and World War II. And for their children, it was the assassination of President Kennedy, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, the Lunar Landing, and, now, the Great Pandemic of 2020.

But there is another marker that is somewhat exclusive to me, not shared by my family but felt resoundingly in a small city in West Virginia, a marker established exactly 50 years ago.

It was a catastrophe that remains stored in that hard drive called memory, for November 14, 1970 will remain forever in my mind, as it followed that usually dreaded day before.

On the late afternoon of Friday, November 13, after struggling with being ill for a few days, I ended the week by locking the school office door and heading home. It was a 100-mile round trip each day to and from work, and then back to my tiny apartment near the campus of Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. At the time, I was employed as a too young, first-year junior high school principal and carrying a full-load as a graduate student in the history department at Marshall. The location of my apartment was within walking distance from school, an ideal situation, for I had need to continually use the library and other enticements the university offered.

After arriving home around 6:00pm, I grabbed something from the refrigerator and made a cup of hot tea to soothe the flu-like symptoms I was experiencing. I

was so ill that I slept most of Saturday but was awakened around 8:00pm by the incessant sound of sirens coming from emergency vehicles racing down nearby streets.

As I became more awake, I realized that the sirens were not heading toward campus or downtown, but instead were moving in the opposite direction. Since I lived on a one-way street, that fact proved helpful in figuring out the flow of the emergency vehicle traffic.

So what was happening in this small university town of about 70,000 that awakened me from a near-coma, a weekend evening when I was so sick that I hadn’t left the apartment in more than 36 hours?

Shortly after 8:00pm, I turned on the radio to find out. And no, I didn’t even own a television back then, and recall that there weren’t any cable news networks yet either. Though I was working, the meager circumstances of being a grad student was at play, as evidenced by the absence of a TV and an assortment of food in the tiny refrigerator.

Within a few minutes, as the sounds of speeding emergency vehicles and their full-throated sirens continued to be heard in my apartment on the city’s leafy Fifth Avenue, an announcer broke in to inform listeners that there were reports of a plane crash at Tri-State Airport in nearby Wayne County, West Virginia. A few more sketchy reports later in the 8pm hour told the townsfolk that the aircraft was a charter flight.

That was the key for me. Huntington wasn’t the largest metropolis in the world, and a charter flight certainly had something to do with Marshall – “the franchise” in that college town, much as it is in any other college community.

Just minutes before 9:00pm, the announcer finally revealed that the charter flight in question was Southern Airways Flight 932, a DC-9 jetliner carrying the Marshall University football team as it returned from its game with East Carolina University. The plane hit a grove of trees just short of the runway, killing all 75 aboard, including 36 team members, 9 coaches and administrators, 25 team boosters, and the crew of 5.

There were no survivors, and the crash remains the deadliest sports-related tragedy in this country.

After hearing some more details on the radio, the sirens suddenly ceased to penetrate the dark November night. That in itself was a bad sign, as I would find out later – as in no survivors to take to the hospital.

With no more sirens to keep me awake, I made some more hot tea with honey and fell back into my coma, where I slept till daybreak. Luckily, neither the phone nor any other sound interrupted my sleep during that dreadful night of horror.

Sometimes, it seems healthy to delay hearing even more bad news.

Though still ill, I ventured out long enough on Sunday morning to go to a grocery store and pick up enough food to get me through the next few days and the work week ahead. It was then that I realized the full impact of this tragedy, where it seems that everyone in Huntington knew someone on that plane or, at the very least, knew someone who knew someone on that ill-fated flight.

I was in the latter category.

No matter what grocery store or other place you entered in Huntington, there was the sight of people crying, some even sobbing in their grief. The sight of moist and swollen eyes on the faces of the populace continued for a few weeks in that town on the banks of the Ohio River.

The History Channel website has this to say about Huntington in the aftermath of the Marshall University plane crash:

For Huntington, the plane crash was “like the Kennedy assassination,” one

citizen remembers. “Everybody knows where they were and what they

were doing when they heard the news.” The town immediately went into

mourning. Shops and government offices closed; businesses on the town’s

main street draped their windows in black bunting. The university held a

memorial service in the stadium the next day and cancelled Monday’s

classes. There were so many funerals that they had to be spread out over

several weeks. In perhaps the saddest ceremony of all, six players whose

remains couldn’t be identified were buried together in Spring Hill

Cemetery, on a hill overlooking their university.

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/plane-crash-devastates-

marshall-university

Indeed it was a rerun of that dreadful Friday afternoon in Dallas just

seven years earlier, when nearly everyone you saw was crying, with the

same faces marked by profound grief.

In reviewing these strong memories, I was struck by this snippet about a

football player from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania who did not travel with the

team that weekend but called home from a phone booth in Huntington to

check in with his parents and reassure them:

“I’m alive. Nobody else is … they’re all dead.”page4image19246720

Years later, at an alumni function, I sat next to another player who alsopage4image19246912

did not make that trip to East Carolina. The memory of that lunchpage4image19247104

conversation remains with me.

The tears that were shed fifty years ago were not only for the football

team but what the catastrophe meant for the entire community. This

description speaks volumes about the scope of the devastation brought by

this plane crash:

Among those on the plane, in addition to the players, coaching staff and

boosters, were three prominent physicians and their wives, a newly-elected

state legislator who also was one of Huntington’s wealthiest men, a pastpage5image19190656

president of Marshall’s alumni association, a city councilman, two pastpage5image19186048

presidents of the Marshall athletic boosters club, an industrialist and thepage5image19186240

sports director of a local television station.

That paragraph says it all.

Just two months later, I relocated to Charleston, the state capital, which

provided a shorter commute to work, although I still had a 100-mile

commute to Marshall on those nights where I had classes to attend.

One more thing. To this day, I have never flown into or out of

Huntington’s hilltop Tri-State Airport, where the lives of 75 people were

snuffed out in an instant. The Charleston airport, also on a hilltop, is scary

enough.

In 2006, the film We Are Marshall retold that horrible tragedy of

November 14, 1970 while depicting how the university and its athletic

program recovered from adversity. Often, I think about those 75 people

whose lives were cut short in a jetliner which was, tragically, only twenty

feet lower than it should have been on its final approach to that runway.

In thinking about this date, it’s enough to make you dream.

Yes, it was a half-century ago. But then it was only yesterday.

The other evening, I had a dream about hearing sirens in the distance, shrill sounds which break the silence of an otherwise uneventful and quiet night.

Lest you think I’m in need of clinical attention, there was an underlying reason for me to be dreaming about the sounds of sirens. Let me explain.

It is said that each generation constructs a series of markers which serve to catalog collective life experiences for the purpose of identifying the most significant events of a particular era. For my parents’ generation, the markers were the Great Flu of 1918, the Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, and World War II. And for their children, it was the assassination of President Kennedy, the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam, the Lunar Landing, and, now, the Great Pandemic of 2020.

But there is another marker that is somewhat exclusive to me, not shared by my family but felt resoundingly in a small city in West Virginia, a marker established exactly 50 years ago.

It was a catastrophe that remains stored in that hard drive called memory, for November 14, 1970 will remain forever in my mind, as it followed that usually dreaded day before.

On the late afternoon of Friday, November 13, after struggling with being ill for a few days, I ended the week by locking the school office door and heading home. It was a 100-mile round trip each day to and from work, and then back to my tiny apartment near the campus of Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia. At the time, I was employed as a too young, first-year junior high school principal and carrying a full-load as a graduate student in the history department at Marshall. The location of my apartment was within walking distance from school, an ideal situation, for I had need to continually use the library and other enticements the university offered.

After arriving home around 6:00pm, I grabbed something from the refrigerator and made a cup of hot tea to soothe the flu-like symptoms I was experiencing. I was so ill that I slept most of Saturday but was awakened around 8:00pm by the incessant sound of sirens coming from emergency vehicles racing down nearby streets.

As I became more awake, I realized that the sirens were not heading toward campus or downtown, but instead were moving in the opposite direction. Since I lived on a one-way street, that fact proved helpful in figuring out the flow of the emergency vehicle traffic.

So what was happening in this small university town of about 70,000 that awakened me from a near-coma, a weekend evening when I was so sick that I hadn’t left the apartment in more than 36 hours?

Shortly after 8:00pm, I turned on the radio to find out. And no, I didn’t even own a television back then, and recall that there weren’t any cable news networks yet either. Though I was working, the meager circumstances of being a grad student was at play, as evidenced by the absence of a TV and an assortment of food in the tiny refrigerator.

Within a few minutes, as the sounds of speeding emergency vehicles and their full-throated sirens continued to be heard in my apartment on the city’s leafy Fifth Avenue, an announcer broke in to inform listeners that there were reports of a plane crash at Tri-State Airport in nearby Wayne County, West

Virginia. A fewpage2image29521312more sketchy reports later in the 8pm hour told the townsfolk that the aircraft was a charter flight.

That was the key for me. Huntington wasn’t the largest metropolis in the world, and a charter flight certainly had something to do with Marshall – “the franchise” in that college town, much as it is in any other college community.

Just minutes before 9:00pm, the announcer finally revealed that the charter flight in question was Southern Airways Flight 932, a DC-9 jetliner carrying the Marshall University football team as it returned from its game with East Carolina University. The plane hit a grove of trees just short of the runway, killing all 75 aboard, including 36 team members, 9 coaches and administrators, 25 team boosters, and the crew of 5.

There were no survivors, and the crash remains the deadliest sports-related tragedy in this country.

After hearing some more details on the radio, the sirens suddenly ceased to penetrate the dark November night. That in itself was a bad sign, as I would find out later – as in no survivors to take to the hospital.

With no more sirens to keep me awake, I made some more hot tea with honey and fell back into my coma, where I slept till daybreak. Luckily, neither the phone nor any other sound interrupted my sleep during that dreadful night of horror.

Sometimes, it seems healthy to delay hearing even more bad news.

Though still ill, I ventured out long enough on Sunday morning to go to a grocery store and pick up enough food to get me through the next few days and the work week ahead. It was then that I realized the full impact of this tragedy, where it seems that everyone in Huntington knew someone on that plane or, at the very least, knew someone who knew someone on that ill-fated flight.

I was in the latter category.

No matter what grocery store or other place you entered in Huntington, there was the sight of people crying, some even sobbing in their grief. The sight of moist and swollen eyes on the faces of the populace continued for a few weeks in that town on the banks of the Ohio River.

The History Channel website has this to say about Huntington in the aftermath of the Marshall University plane crash:

For Huntington, the plane crash was “like the Kennedy assassination,” one

citizen remembers. “Everybody knows where they were and what they

were doing when they heard the news.” The town immediately went into

mourning. Shops and government offices closed; businesses on the town’s

main street draped their windows in black bunting. The university held a

memorial service in the stadium the next day and cancelled Monday’s

classes. There were so many funerals that they had to be spread out over

several weeks. In perhaps the saddest ceremony of all, six players whose

remains couldn’t be identified were buried together in Spring Hill

Cemetery, on a hill overlooking their university.

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/plane-crash-devastates-

marshall-university

Indeed it was a rerun of that dreadful Friday afternoon in Dallas just

seven years earlier, when nearly everyone you saw was crying, with the

same faces marked by profound grief.

In reviewing these strong memories, I was struck by this snippet about a

football player from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania who did not travel with the

team that weekend but called home from a phone booth in Huntington to

check in with his parents and reassure them:

“I’m alive. Nobody else is … they’re all dead.”page4image19265600

Years later, at an alumni function, I sat next to another player who alsopage4image19265792

conversation remains with me.

The tears that were shed fifty years ago were not only for the football

team but what the catastrophe meant for the entire community. This

description speaks volumes about the scope of the devastation brought by

this plane crash:

Among those on the plane, in addition to the players, coaching staff and

boosters, were three prominent physicians and their wives, a newly-elected

state legislator who also was one of Huntington’s wealthiest men, a pastpage5image19289152

president of Marshall’s alumni association, a city councilman, two pastpage5image19295872

presidents of the Marshall athletic boosters club, an industrialist and thepage5image19292032

sports director of a local television station.

That paragraph says it all.

Just two months later, I relocated to Charleston, the state capital, which

provided a shorter commute to work, although I still had a 100-mile

commute to Marshall on those nights where I had classes to attend.

One more thing. To this day, I have never flown into or out of

Huntington’s hilltop Tri-State Airport, where the lives of 75 people were

snuffed out in an instant. The Charleston airport, also on a hilltop, is scary

enough.

In 2006, the film We Are Marshall retold that horrible tragedy of

November 14, 1970 while depicting how the university and its athletic

program recovered from adversity. Often, I think about those 75 people

whose lives were cut short in a jetliner which was, tragically, only twenty

feet lower than it should have been on its final approach to that runway.

In thinking about this date, it’s enough to make you dream.

Yes, it was a half-century ago. But then it was only yesterday.