Terrible Night in 1970 Remains a Vivid Memory
It was just another Saturday morning, November 14th, 1970.
Ohio Valley residents were having their usual breakfasts at home, or at one of the local restaurants and talking about last night’s high school football contests.
Others were getting ready to take in a college football game in person, or planning to watch their favorite team on television, later in the day.
At Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, North Carolina, final field preparations were underway for the afternoon contest between East Carolina and the Thundering Herd of Marshall University.
The Marshall football team, as did most of their other athletic teams, usually traveled by bus. as most opponents were not that far away.
A proposal for the Thundering Herd team to fly, via charter, was initially refused, but the canceled flight was rescheduled when negotiated adjustments to the weight of passengers and baggage were reached.
The Southern Airways DC-9 was to return to Huntington, West Virginia immediately following the game, a game Head Coach Rick Tolley and his team lost 17 to 14.
Southern Airways Flight 932 departed Stallings Field at Kinston, North Carolina and traveled to Huntington, West Virginia.
That evening, at 7:23 p.m., the flight crew made contact with the tower at Huntington and were instructed to descend to 5,000 feet.
At 7:34 p.m. the plane passed the Tri-State Airport’s outer marker. The plane failed to hold its descent at 1,240 feet as required. Instead, the plane descended another 300 feet.
There is speculation that the height of a nearby refinery, in relationship to the airfield a difference of 300 feet, could have contributed to the confusion in the airplane’s cockpit as the plane approached the runway.
The pilot and crew agreed they were on the proper approach until just a second or two before impact.
In that final second, or two, the last thing the tower heard was the co-pilot quickly calling out “hundred and twenty-six … Hundred” then the sound of impact.
I had been in radio about six years by November of 1970.
Like most of you, I remember where I was the afternoon I heard on the radio of my parents’ Chevy Corvair of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
I remember where I was and what I was doing November 14th, 1970, the night the Ohio Valley learned of the airplane crash that took the lives of 75 souls who were returning home from a Marshall University football game.
On that Saturday evening, I was doing a 7 p.m. to midnight shift at WKWK in Wheeling.
Evenings and nights in the “Good Guy” days of WKWK in the ’60s and ’70s always meant a large teen and college listening audience.
Students from Wheeling Jesuit College, West Liberty, and Bethany were the DJ’s constant radio companions, as were area high school teenagers.
In those days, before satellites, newspapers, television and radio stations relied on teletype machines. Those machines were equipped with bells to alert broadcasters of important, or urgent, news stories. Those old machines made so much noise they were kept outside the radio broadcast studio.
At WKWK they were just outside the studio door when the studios were located in the old Pythian Building, just above the former 16th. Street Newsstand.
Sometime between 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., the bells on both the Associated Press and United Press International teletype machines began to ring.
This wasn’t the normal ding or two. They were ringing to the point I knew something major had taken place.
The last time they rang like they did that night would likely have been on the news of the assassination of JFK, seven years earlier.
I started another record and cued up a second, then went out to check the machine.
It is hard to describe my emotions, my feelings, as I began reading as the machine continued to type away. It was disbelief, shock, and sadness all simultaneously.
“A plane carrying the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team, coaches, staff, and fans crashed into a hillside just short of the Huntington Tri-State Airport!
“The team was returning from a game earlier today in Greenville, North Carolina.”
Our News Director was Ken Kadar, an excellent news reporter and journalist, but on evenings and weekends, the disc jockeys were on their own when it came to reporting news and sports.
That which I described above of the teletype report is the best as I can remember it from 50 years ago. I don’t believe the initial report addressed the question of possible survivors.
I read the report over a couple of times, then read the news bulletin to WKWK listeners.
In those days we had a “request line,” 232-2250.
Actually, there were three roll-over lines and immediately they began to light up.
The rest of that evening I found myself being both disc jockey and grief counselor to many callers. Mostly college girls and guys who knew some of those on the Marshall football team. Some were sobbing hysterically. Some were wanting to know if this person, or that person, had been among the passengers.
Of course, I didn’t have that information. As the evening wore on, at some point, I’m confident, I learned there were no survivors.
In all 75 lives were lost: Five crew members, 37 players, eight members of the coaching staff, and 25 boosters, or fans.
The remains of six passengers, were never identified.
I will always remember that one day in those 12 years I spent working in radio. I had just turned 24 in September of 1970 and during that one evening, in those few hours, I learned about the brevity of life.
I was not familiar with the Scriptures then. I had not read James 4:14 in The New King James Version which reads, “whereas you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away.”
Seventy-five precious souls had boarded a plane, each expecting to be back in Huntington, West Virginia around 8 p.m. the evening of November 14, 1970. They were expecting to be with their families and friends and in their own beds that night. Instead, they crossed over into eternity.
The plane crash of Southern Airways Flight 932 remains the single worst plane crash in sports history.
And so, on the 50th anniversary of that terrible night, Marshall University held events to remember that day and those 75 lives that were lost. Several events are planned, starting last Tuesday and continuing through the remainder of the week, concluding with a special remembrance of the 75 who died with a moment of silence prior to the game on Saturday at noon as the Thundering Herd played on Middle Tennessee State University.
In 2006, the movie, “We Are Marshall,” starred Matthew McConaughey, as Coach Jack Lengyel, who was hired as the replacement for the deceased Coach Rick Tolley.
It wasn’t the box office hit it might have been had it been made and released within a few years of the worst airplane disaster involving a sports team in U. S. history.
It was well done and had a really good supporting cast that included Kimberly Williams Paisley, wife of Brad Paisley, as the wife of Coach Jack Lengyel.
The bright news today for the Marshall University Thundering Herd, under Head Coach Doc Holiday, is their 6 and 0 start and first place standing at the top of Conference USA Eastern Division of the NCAA. GO HERD!
Chamberlain is a resident of Moundsville who has served on City Council and as mayor, and was elected again to Council in the Nov. 3 election.