After a tough loss in Greenville, North Carolina, Marshall University fans, football team, and staff boarded a flight departing for Huntington, WV on November 14, 1970. The plane crashed at this location as it was approaching the Huntington Airport, and the lives of 75 people were lost in the worst single air tragedy in NCAA sports history. This forever changed the small university community of Huntington, the Marshall football program, and the families of those who lost loved ones on that fateful day.
On November 14th, 1970, thirty-seven players, nine coaches, twenty-five boosters, and a flight crew of four boarded a McDonnell Douglas DC-9 operated by Southern Airways following a tough road loss to East Carolina University. The DC-9 had only been in operation for a little over a year and had flown approximately 3,600 hours, and there were no signs of potential mechanical problems. However, poor weather conditions and fog made visibility a challenge for the flight crew shortly after the plane departed North Carolina at 6:38pm. The crew contacted the Huntington airport tower at 7:23pm and their landing was approved. Due to poor visibility, however, the plane went below the minimum descent altitude in hopes of seeing the approaching runway more clearly. When this happened, the plane struck trees on a hillside which caused the plane to crash about a mile away from the runway. There were no survivors.
“The National Transportation Safety Board determines
that the probable cause was the descent below Minimum Descent Altitude during a
non precision approach under adverse weather conditions, without visual contact
with the runway environment. The Board has been unable to determine the reason
for this descent, although the two most likely explanations are: a) improper
use of cockpit instrument data; or b) an altimetry system error” (Aircraft
Accident Report, NTSB-AAR-72-11, p. 36).1
The horrific crash left a university, a city, and many families in mourning. A memorial service was held on Sunday, November 15, 1970 at 7:00 pm, the same time Marshall University was scheduled to play rival Ohio University. An annual memorial service is held on campus each year on November 14th, when time stands still as the Memorial Fountain is turned off in honor of these Sons and Daughters of Marshall.
Following the crash, the Marshall University football team was only left nine players and athletic leaders decided to suspend the program indefinitely. After the memorial, members of the Marshall community explored the possibility of rebuilding the team, an idea that slowly gained support despite the obstacles involved, including a rule that barred freshmen students from playing in NCAA games at that time. Thanks to an NCAA waiver to allow freshmen to play in Marshall's first season, the team was able to recruit players and return to the field in 1971. The team won only two games that year, but the team's first home game following the crash ended with a 15-13 victory over Xavier University. The symbolic victory transcended athletic competition and initiated a tradition where the Marshall football team began to represent something greater than sport.
This historic marker is one of many physical reminders of the tragic crash and resilience of the community and university. In the center of Marshall University is a memorial fountain that is home to a ceremony to honor the lives lost on November 14th, 1970. There is also a memorial at Spring Hill Cemetery and a bronze plaque at the location of the current and former football stadium.