Memories of a Marshall tragedy

by Lauren Cartwright

In mid-November of each year a gray cloud settles over the river and rail town of Huntington, W.Va. Outsiders would say it’s just winter moving in; insiders say it’s the cloudy memories of the community, held over from that fateful day in 1970, the one that hangs over the city like a specter.

On Nov. 14, 1970, 75 souls were aboard a charter plane that crashed into an Appalachian hillside seconds from the runway at Tri-State Airport, killing everyone on board. Thirty-seven players were returning from a football game; the rest were coaches and family members, university staff, some loyal locals and of course the flight crew.

That tragic day in West Virginia has ties to the Old North State. That plane was returning from a game at Eastern Carolina University. Marshall lost the tight game 14-17. Thirty-six years after the crash, it lives in infamy as the largest sports disaster in the US.

An Emmy-winning documentary Ashes to Glory about Marshall’s football team was filmed a few years ago. It chronicled how the university started over and eventually became a football powerhouse ‘— the winningest team in the ’90s with a 101-25 record.

Warner Bros. announced they will begin shooting a feature-length film in mid-March. The movie, which has yet to be titled, will focus on the year after the crash and the decisions the school faced ‘— whether to shut it all down or to start over. They did start the program again and the boys of the fall of ’71 became known as the ‘Young Thundering Herd.’

A couple well-known Hollywood names are attached to the project. Matthew McConaughey is set to play Jack Lengyel the coach from ’71 through ’74. Matthew Fox has signed on to play Red Dawson, one of the assistant coaches of the ’70 team who was on a recruiting circuit and decided to drive to the ECU game instead of flying.

My friend Erin’s dad was a part of that Young Thundering Herd. He played at University of Buffalo, which closed up it’s football program for a few years in ’70. He was looking for a place to play and became part of the rebuilding of a community. He’s a hulking 6-foot-3 man of Native American descent, who gets around a little better now after double knee replacements. He still likes to talk about his glory days on the field and off. Erin says the only time she’s seen her dad run is in that Ashes to Glory film.

In Huntington, ‘the plane crash’ is referred to often, and instantly everyone knows what you’re talking about. It’s like in the post-2001 era America when someone says ‘9/11.’ Marshall University lost a football team and a budding program. Seventy children in the community were left without a parent, and out of those, 18 children lost both of their parents.

There are countless heartbreaking stories from that day. Probably the most well known is the one of 9-year-old Keith Morehouse who lost his father Gene that day. His dad was a local sportscaster and traveled with the team as the voice of Marshall athletics. Keith became a sports anchor at the local NBC affiliate and even does the play-by-play of the Marshall football games. After graduating from Marshall, Keith married a girl from across town ‘— Debbie Hagley ‘— whose mother and father Ray, the team’s physician, both died in the crash.

And the fate of those who made it and who didn’t was very selective. There’s Nate Ruffin ‘— one of the only surviving members of the team. He was sick that week and wasn’t able to make the game. I heard him speak in my hometown once, in mid-life he became a motivational speaker, traveling around and telling his story. He said of that fateful day that his grandmother had called him a week earlier and said she had a bad feeling about him traveling that week.

Each year in the center of Huntington’s Marshall University campus, a group gathers around an icy memorial fountain shaped like ‘— some at the university joke ‘— an eggplant. The sculpture in the middle of the fountain ‘— which has over the years turned a minty-green like the Statue of Liberty ‘— has 75 nail-like pieces soldered together. Each nail head represents a person lost in the crash. The fountain is turned off every year on the anniversary of the crash and isn’t turned on again until the spring. They hold a ceremony and the all the local news stations are there for a soundbite for the evening news. Current and former football players are always present and, depending on the temperatures, there’s usually a good turnout. In my four and a half years at Marshall I never found time to make it to the ceremony, either because of class or I was just too lazy to go, and now that I’ve graduated, I regret it.

Prior to modern DNA technology, six of the bodies were never identified and lay in graves marked through an elimination process in the Spring Hill Cemetery in Huntington on top of a hill that overlooks the city. To me it seems like they’re watching over everyone and since no one’s positively certain who they are it’s like they represent everyone in the crash.

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