This is not a post based on Jane Austen and her writing or on the Regency Period in England as you would customarily find on my blog. Rather it is a a moment in time when I stood witness to the true human spirit, and like so many others, I must speak of it. November 14 is the anniversary of one of the most tragic events I 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, as well as comprehend why I look to the simplicity of reading and writing romance for my release. When I think back to the moments in my life, which defined me as a person, one I must choose is my senior year in college. I attended Marshall University in Huntington, West Virginia.
On November 14, 1970, the Marshall faithful followed the team to East Carolina University for a closely contested game. Returning to Huntington after the 17-14 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 (37 players), coaches, team doctors, the university’s athletic director, 25 supporters (many prominent citizens of the town), 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.
Other than being a MU student and part time waitress, I also spent some time with a volunteer medical unit, one stationed close to the accident. (I later taught at one of the high schools in the area.) At the time, I thought I might become a nurse. I was certified in basic first aid, and I was not of the nature to panic when I encountered danger. Previously, I assisted several people in car wrecks and the like.
Upon my arrival at the scene, those in charge pressed me into combing the hillside for the bodies, one of the most horrendous experiences of my life. With flashlights and flares used for light, those of us determined to be of service began to gather what we could salvage. We each thought to discover someone clinging to life, but no such scene ever occurred. In the movie, We Are Marshall, there is a line that says something to the effect of “There are no survivors.” It always brings me to tears (even as I type this piece).
We were instructed to take our finds to a temporary morgue at the National Guard Armory at the airport. I recall the terrible moment when we realized we didn’t have enough body bags. It was a taste of reality that shook me to my core. If one looked to the hillside hosting the crash scene, he would find small fires that burned for hours. Only the jet’s engine and a wing section were recognizable to the investigators trying to piece together an explanation of a disaster.
Pieces of bodies were scattered throughout the area. White plastic was used 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, S. S. Logan Packing Company, distributor of the Cavalier meat brands, provided a cooling unit to preserve the bodies until they could be identified.
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 held “potential” before them (the players) and those who greeted life as a partner (mothers, fathers, business leaders, doctors, lawyers, coaches). A 52-minute flight 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 held my hopes set on a brighter tomorrow. The crash was a gaping hole waiting to be healed.
The fictional character of Annie Cantrell in the movie commemorating this event says of the grief: Those were not welcome days. We buried sons, brothers, mothers, fathers, fiancés. Clocks ticked, but time did not pass. The sun rose and the sun set, but the shadows remained. When once there was sound, now there was silence. What once was whole, now was shattered.
Despite our common anguish, things happened to keep the hope alive. The NCAA permitted Marshall to play freshmen, something never allowed 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 it won more games than any other Division I team. 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. That man can step into the light once again. 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.'”