December 19, 2006

Marshall crash still looms after 36 years

The tragedy is unthinkable, the grief unimaginable.

It's difficult, even 36 years later, to wrap your head around it: Nearly the entire Marshall football team and coaching staff were gone, killed in a plane crash Nov. 14, 1970, just minutes before they were scheduled to land back home in Huntington, W.Va.

The plane, a chartered Southern Airways DC9, left Kinston, N.C., on that Saturday night at about 6 p.m. It was carrying 37 Thundering Herd players, eight coaches and university administrators, 25 community members and five crew members. Marshall had just lost to East Carolina, 17-14, and the flight back to Tri-State Airport was to last less than an hour.

It was rainy, foggy and cold. The crew was unfamiliar with the small airport. The National Transportation Safety Board said the 95-seat plane clipped trees along a ridge just west of the airport. The plane then cut a stomach-churning swath for hundreds of feet through the forest. It plunged nose first into the ground, exploding on impact.

Parents lost sons. Wives lost husbands. Children lost parents, in some cases both parents. All 75 people aboard were gone in an instant.

Classes at Marshall were canceled. Huntington virtually shut down, too, except for funeral homes. They were working overtime.

"Once the funerals started we would just run from one funeral to another," said Lucianne Kautz Call, whose father, Marshall Athletic Director Charles E. Kautz, was on the plane.

There was nowhere to look for relief. Mary Plyde Ward Bell had given birth to a daughter just 10 days before the crash, and now she was a widow with four children. Her husband, Parker Ward - a Buick dealer and Marshall booster - was on the plane.

"It was just the worst of the worst," said Plyde Ward Bell, who was 34 at the time. "Everybody who came to our house was sad not just about us, but about 15 other people. It was just so magnified."

As news spread of the crash, there was some hope there would be survivors. But it didn't take long to realize everyone on board was gone. The crash touched off a fire so intense in the thicket that six of the bodies were never identified.

"You just can't allow yourself to think that anything that bad has happened," Plyde Ward Bell said. "You almost have to see it. I thought, 'This just can't be.'

"In the midst of all of these people (who had come to her house to offer support), our minister arrived. He was extremely close to my husband, and they spent a lot of time together. He asked me to come into the front of the house with him where it was a little quieter. We sat down. He said, 'Take my hands, and look at me.' I didn't think I would ever get these four words out of my mind. He said, 'I need for you to just look at me and think about what I'm saying. There are no survivors.' "

The scene was horrific, etched forever in the minds of emergency personnel, police and the Huntington Herald-Dispatch police reporter who was the first member of the media to get a close look.

"I had worked that day, and I had come home. After dinner I got a phone call," said Jack Hardin, 44 at the time and already a veteran at the newspaper. "A woman who lives near the scene told me there had been a plane crash, a big plane, commercial, probably nobody we knew.

"I got in the car with my wife and two sons and headed out there. I parked beside the road. The fuselage was still burning, but you could see the 'E-R-N' on the end of it. One of the firefighters - a friend of mine - said, 'Jack, it could be an Eastern flight.' Another one said, 'Jack, the Marshall team was coming in on a Southern plane.' I thought, 'Oh my God.' "

"I didn't think I would ever get these four words out of my mind. He said, 'I need for you to just look at me and think about what I'm saying. There are no survivors.' "

- Mary Plyde Ward Bell

Hardin said a former sheriff on the scene found a billfold that belonged to one of the players, John Young, a sophomore tight end from Buckhannon, W.Va. Suddenly it began to sink in what had occurred. Hardin said the sheriff allowed him inside the roped-off crash site, but told him to be careful.

"He didn't want me to step on anything. He was talking about bodies," Hardin said. He had forgotten all about the fact he had left his wife and sons in the car.

Airlines weren't using computerized ticketing or registration then, so the complete list of who was on the plane wasn't immediately known. The police had to go the Kautz home to get the final list, which was with Lucy Kautz, the AD's wife. She would have been on the plane, too, but her father had taken ill and she stayed behind to help her mother.

"I had been with my father earlier in the day, and then I had gone shopping with my youngest daughter," said Kautz, now 83. "She kept trying on clothes. I said, 'You've got to hurry, your dad is coming home just any minute.' Fortunately I was in such a hurry to get home that I didn't turn the radio on in the car. But when I drove up to the house I saw so many people I knew what had happened. I knew what had happened before I got into the house.

"At the store I heard them paging people, and I thought, 'I wonder why they're paging all these people.' It didn't dawn on me."

Sunday brought no relief. Forensic scientists were trying to identify bodies in a makeshift morgue in an airport hangar. Family members were being asked questions that are asked only in situations like these, questions like: Do you remember anything he or she might have been wearing? Had he or she had any dental work done?

"We had to help identify bodies," said Kim Proctor Crabtree. Her parents, team doctor Herbert D. Proctor and Courtney Proctor, were on the plane. Kim Proctor was only 19 at the time. "They'd call me and say, 'Can you tell us anything more about what your mom was wearing?'

"I can still remember trying to be mature enough to try and stop and think about that. We were very fortunate if you think back to 1970, no such thing as DNA testing, so we were fortunate that both of my parents were identified and able to be buried."

There is an old adage that reads: Time heals all wounds. Thirty-six years have passed since the crash. For some, it has been enough time. Others could live forever and the wounds still would run too deep.

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