The Morning Call (Sunday)

Bethlehem player cried when football team died in 1970 crash

- By Deb Kiner ©2020 The Patriot-News (Harrisburg, Pennsylvan­ia) Distribute­d by Tribune Content Agency LLC.

On Saturday, Nov. 14, 1970, Rich Tagland called his parents in Bethlehem from a phone booth in Huntington, West Virginia.

Tagland, a junior on the Marshall University football team had missed the plane that carried the team to Greenville, North Carolina, to play East Carolina University.

According to Associated Press, Tagland sobbed into the phone.

“I’m alive. Nobody else is … they’re all dead.”

The communitie­s of Huntington andMarshal­l University were plunged into grief that Saturday night 50 years ago when the Southern Airways DC-9 bringing the football team home crashed while trying to land at Tri-State Airport in Kenova, West Virginia.

All 75 people on board were killed including almost the entire Thundering Herd football team and coaching staff.

Marshall lost much more than a football game that night. On Monday, Nov. 16, AP reported:

“‘This town died today.’ With that cry, a nurse at Huntington Hospital reflected the grief at Marshall University and its home city after Saturday night’s crash of a Southern Airways chartered DC -9 carrying the school’ s football team and others.

“Among those on the plane, in addition to the players, coaching staff and boosters, were three prominent physicians and their wives, a newly elected state legislator who also was one of

Huntington’s wealthiest men, a past president of Marshall’s alumni associatio­n, a city councilman, two past presidents of the Marshall athletic boosters club, an industrial­ist and the sports director of a local television station.

“In all, there were 75 dead, and a school of 8,500 and a city of 73,000 went into mourning.

“At midnight, about 400 students andcitizen­s joined hands in a campus memorial service, opened with the singing of an African hymn, ‘Kumbaya.’ Most wept openly. Some fell to their knees as they sang.”

Associated Press described family members and friends flocking to hospitals and the university’s physical education building, where medical staff treated students in shock, writing:

“At a nearby hospital, citizens and students were ushered into a conference room. Theyhadcom­e late in the night looking, hoping for survivors.

“At least 10 of them crumpled to the floor when the cordonedof­f hospital, primed for caring for survivors, remained quiet.

“There were no injured.” According to AP, many of those on board the plane had “rallied in support of Marshall” in the previous two years.

“It was a tough two-year period when the school went 27 games without a victory, was expelled from its conference for recruiting violations and saw its head coach removed for alleged irregulari­ties .”

The supporters raised money for scholarshi­ps “and pressured the West Virginia Legislatur­e into releasing $1 million for anartifici­al playing surface.”

The writer described the scene at the airport where a crowd waited for the plane to land.

“Their gaze turned to horror when the jet disappeare­d behind a hill, followed by a brilliant blast and a mushroom of black smoke.”

The chairman of the National Transporta­tion Safety Board, John Reed, told AP that the plane brushed the treetops in front of the airport that rainy day, sending the“jet liner cartwheeli­ng into a hillside.”

The plane crashed two miles short of the runway, flipped upside down and burst into flames.

Reed told AP the plane clipped the first tree 66 feet above ground on the ridge.

“Obviously, the aircraft was lower than it should have been, but we don’t know why,” he said.

The 2006 movie, “We Are Marshall,” depicted the aftermath of the crash. Matthew McCon aug hey star red as new head football coach Jack Lengyel, who was brought in to rebuild the team.

Marshall University held events to mark the anniversar­y.

On Friday, Marshall honored 39 of the students who died by awarding them posthumous degrees. The university said on its website that degrees would be awarded to 36 football players, an assistant trainer, a student assistant statistici­an and the sports editor of The Parthenon.

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