CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) — A bill has won final legislative approval in West Virginia that would establish an annual day of recognition for the worst sports disaster in U.S. history, a plane crash that killed most of Marshall University’s football team.
On Nov. 14, 1970, the chartered jet crashed in fog and rain into a hillside upon approach to an airport near Huntington as the team was returning from a game at East Carolina, killing all 75 on board. The victims included 36 football players and 39 school administrators, coaches, fans, spouses and flight crew.
Marshall decided to continue the football program. But for the university and the entire community, it left a huge void. Some who were left off the flight and did not make the trip or lost loved ones spent the next five decades with crippling questions that had no answers.
The bill establishes that Nov. 14 will become a “special memorial day” in remembrance of the crash.
Prior to the state Senate’s unanimous vote Wednesday, the chamber held a moment of silence for the crash victims at the request of Upshur County Republican Sen. Bill Hamilton. The House of Delegates passed the bill last month.
Cabell County Democratic Sen. Mike Woelfel said he was 17 years old driving in his car in Huntington when news of the crash came on the radio.
“Just like winter leads to spring, these bad memories now lead us to, I think, a day of celebration,” Woelfel said. “I’m glad that we’re going to honor them for each year in this way from here on out.”
Wayne County Democratic Sen. Robert Plymale was 15 at the time and was with friends in Kenova, near the airport. It was raining hard, and he remembered seeing ambulances speeding past the group.
Plymale said his mother was a professor at Marshall. Four of the crash victims were students in her class, and Marshall faculty were sent to attend the funerals. Plymale’s mother attended a funeral in North Carolina, and her family became close friends with the victim’s family.
Plymale said 64 children lost one or both of their parents in the crash.
Among them were Dr. Ray Hagley, who was a Marshall team physician, and his wife. They left behind six children who were being babysat by Dan D’Antoni, a 23-year-old assistant with the Marshall basketball program in 1970. D’Antoni is now Marshall’s basketball coach.
“This goes deep,” Plymale said. “It really sort of shapes the fiber in you, of what you are.”
Six weeks before the Marshall tragedy, a plane carrying members of the Wichita State football team crashed in Colorado, killing 31 people.
Among those who were not on the Marshall plane were Red Dawson, an assistant coach who was driving on a recruiting trip and was heading home when he learned about the crash. The following offseason, Dawson went to a national coaching convention. He recalled talking at length with some of his counterparts at Wichita State, and how they leaned on each other for support.
While Wichita State ended its football program in 1986, Marshall carried on.
Jack Lengyel was hired as the new coach in 1971. Marshall won just two games, and the first winning season didn’t come for another 13 years. Then success occurred in streaks. Marshall captured Division I-AA national championships in 1992 and 1996 and amassed the most wins of any team in the nation in the 1990s, many of them during a step up to Division I-A, now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision.
The rebuilding was the subject of the 2006 movie “We are Marshall” starring Matthew McConaughey as Lengyel.
Woelfel, who had a speaking part in the movie, said it “brought a lot of people back together to deal with the loss and they did it collectively. So I think this is another step along in that healing process.”