This is not a post on Jane Austen. Rather it is a a moment in time when I saw the true human spirit, and like Jane Austen, I need to speak of it. Today is the anniversary of one of the most tragic events I have ever experienced, and I hope you will allow me to take you into my life, and by doing so, you will understand more of what makes me the person I am and comprehend why I look to the simplicity of romance for my release. When I think back to the moments which have defined me as a person, I must choose my senior year in college. I attended Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.
On November 14, 1970, the Marshall faithful followed the team to Eastern Carolina University for a closely contested game. Returning to Huntington after the loss, Flight 932, a chartered twin-engine Southern Airways DC-9, struck a tree on a hill 5,543 feet west of the runway. The plane cut a path 95 feet wide by 279 feet long through the tree line, even clipping an abandoned house. It crashed, nose-first, in a hollow 4,219 feet short of the runway. The plane, essentially, came apart. A fire melted most of the fuselage. All 75 people aboard, including the entire football team, coaches, a group of supporters, and a crew of five, died. Even today, the cause remains uncertain: weather (fog and rain) or too low of a descent or improper use of cockpit instrumentation data.
Besides being a MU student, I also spent some time with a volunteer fire unit, one of the closest to the accident. Upon my arrival at the scene, I was pressed into combing the hillside for the bodies, one of the most horrendous experiences of my life. With flashlights and flares used for light, we began to gather what we could salvage. Taking my finds to a temporary morgue at the National Guard Armory at the airport, I recall the terrible moment when we realized we had not enough body bags. On the hillside, small fires burned for hours, and only the jet’s engine and a wing section were recognizable. Pieces of bodies were scattered throughout the area. We covered our finds with white plastic to block the view of “interested” onlookers who rushed to the scene. What we could recover, we placed on sheets laid on the armory’s floor. I remember that, ironically, Logan Packing Company provided a cooling unit to preserve the bodies.
Over the next week and a half, I attended 13 funerals, three in one day alone. An “instant” snuffed out the lives of the young who still had potential before them (the players) and those who had greeted life as a partner (mothers, fathers, business leaders, doctors, lawyers, coaches). A 52-minute flight had changed a town and changed me. A grief impossible to explain gripped the area. It was not only that we lost a football program. In reality, we were not a powerhouse at the time, but we were one of the first schools to recruit Black athletes, a statement of change following the Civil Rights movement. And like every young person, I had my hopes on a brighter tomorrow. The crash was a gaping hole waiting to be healed.
Despite our common anguish, things happened to keep the hope alive. The NCAA allowed Marshall to play freshmen, something never permitted previously, and with the insistence of Nate Ruffin, a man who later served on the university’s Alumni Board, as did I, the program became whole again. Walk-on players stepped up, and a team resurfaced. I would like to tell you that the program miraculously became automatic winners, but that would be a lie. For my birthday weekend, the first game in 1971, I was among those in the stands at Morehead State University watching the “Young” Thundering Herd; and although MU lost, many of us saw it as a victory for the university and the town. The next weekend, I was again among the throng crowded into Fairfield Stadium for the team’s first home game. And miracle of miracles, God answered the combined prayer of a crazed crowd – from those who pleaded for a sign that He had not forsaken them. I am not one to beg God for winning lottery numbers or for an unexpected inheritance, but I admit to adding my silent prayers for a win and was granted a last-minute one over Xavier. For hours afterwards, we remained in the stands, hugging strangers who shared the joy of seeing hope resurrected.
Marshall won only one more game that season, and for over a decade the university and the town suffered through numerous losing seasons; yet, even with those losses, people remembered the Xavier win. Often one heard someone say, “Were you here when the plane crashed?” Meaning, “Do we have a shared identity?” In the mid-80’s, MU won a I-AA National Championship and in the 90s more games than any other Division I school. Like every other school, MU has its good seasons and its rebuilding ones, but football is not the lesson here.
What did I learn from this tragedy? First, life is short. Embrace each day as if it is your last. Secondly, hope never dies. Even when faced with complete devastation, some moment, no matter how brief, tells a person that the phoenix will rise from the ashes. Lastly, true love is the most compelling of tasks. It is what sees us through the darkness.
November 14, 1970, serves as a defining date in my life. Like many who experienced this tragedy first hand, I am forever changed. However, the release of the 2006 movie We Are Marshall filled that gaping hole. I cried the first time I saw the film – the memory still too raw even after 35 years, but with each subsequent viewing, the hurt has lessened. Instead of death, I now view the resiliency of the human spirit. That resiliency and that need for hope and love are the subject of my writing.
The Memorial Student Center Fountain was dedicated to the memory of the plane crash victims on November 12, 1972. Each year on the crash’s anniversary the water is turned off until the next spring. Its creator Harry Bertora said, “I hoped the fountain would ‘commemorate the living – rather than the dead – on the waters of life, rising, receding, surging, so to express upward growth, immortality, and eternality.'”