CHARLESTON (AP) – A bill has gained 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 the football team of Marshall University.
On November 14, 1970, the chartered jet crashed in fog and rain into a hill on approach to an airfield near Huntington as the team was returning from a game in East Carolina, killing all 75 on board. Casualties included 36 football players and 39 school administrators, coaches, fans, spouses and aircrews.
Marshall decided to continue the football program. But for the university and for the entire community he has left a huge void. Some who were left off flying and didn’t make the trip or lost loved ones spent the next fifty years with crippling questions that had no answers.
The bill establishes that November 14 will become a “special day of remembrance” in remembrance of the accident.
Before the state Senate’s unanimous vote Wednesday, the house held a moment of silence for the crash victims at the request of Upshur County Republican Sen. Bill Hamilton. The House of Delegates approved the bill last month.
Cabell County Democratic Senator Mike Woelfel said he was 17 and driving his car in Huntington when news of the crash hit the radio.
“Just as winter leads to spring, these bad memories now lead us, I think, to a day of celebration,” Woelfel said. “I’m glad we’ll be honoring them every year like this from here on out.”
Democratic Wayne County Senator Robert Plymale was 15 at the time and was with friends in Kenova, near the airport. He was pouring with rain and he remembered seeing ambulances speed past the group.
Plymale said her mother was a professor at Marshall. Four of the crash victims were students in her class, and Marshall’s faculty were sent to attend the funeral. 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 parents in the crash.
Among them were Dr. Ray Hagley, who was a Marshall team doctor, and his wife. They left behind six children who had been cared for by Dan D’Antoni, a 23-year-old assistant with the Marshall basketball program in the 1970s. D’Antoni is now Marshall’s basketball coach.
“This goes deep,” Plymale said. “It sort of shapes the fiber in you, of who 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 not on the Marshall plane was Red Dawson, an assistant coach who was driving on a recruiting trip and was on his way home when he learned of 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 continued.
Jack Lengyel was hired as the new manager in 1971. Marshall won only two games and his first winning season didn’t come for another 13 years. Then success came in stripes. Marshall captured Division I-AA national championships in 1992 and 1996 and amassed the most wins of any team in the nation during the 1990s, many while moving up to Division I-A, now known as the Football Bowl Subdivision .
The reconstruction was the subject of the 2006 film ‘We are Marshall’ starring Matthew McConaughey as Lengyel.
Woelfel, who had a role in the film, said it “brought a lot of people together to deal with the loss and they did it collectively. So I think this is another step in that healing process.