It was a rainy November night when a chartered plane carrying nearly the entire Marshall University football team crashed into a West Virginia mountainside in what is considered the worst single air tragedy in NCAA sports history.
Monday marks the 41st anniversary of the plane crash, which had a significant impact on several current and former Murray State faculty members.
Constantine Curris, chair of the Board of Regents and former president of the University, was serving at Marshall as director of student personnel services at the time of the accident.
“It was without question one of the great tragedies in our lifetime, particularly those of us who work in higher education,” Curris said. “It was totally unpredictable.”
Southern Airlines, an established airline that had never had an accident, chartered the plane, so there was nothing to suggest there would be any kind of problem, Curris said.
“It was a rainy night and in truth they never determined what was the cause of the accident, whether it was a faulty alternator or pilot error, but when the accident occurred we were just in shock,” he said. “One of my more vivid memories was the conversion of the gymnasium, and we’re talking to something like Racer Arena, that was converted into an emergency medical center for provision of counseling and medical services to students on campus that evening.”
That night Curris and the entire student affairs staff worked to stabilize the campus with obligations including the heart wrenching responsibility of identifying victims and notifying the parents of the deceased, he said.
“It really impacts your outlook on life and the way you look at things and shows you how precious life is,” he said. “Life is here today and gone tomorrow.”
Paula Hulick, former director of housing for Murray State, attended Marshall from 1965 to 1972 and was in graduate school when the plane crash happened.
“It was just devastating,” Hulick said. “There were so many emotions you feel on so many levels, one word people often used to describe it was surreal.”
Several Marshall University males were in the National Guard at the time because of the Vietnam War and were activated after the crash for search and rescue, she said.
“I have very vivid memories of some people doing that and their reaction when they came back,” she said. “One of the guys I remember fell apart after he found his fraternity brother’s finger with the (fraternity) ring.”
Despite the devastating circumstances, hope did indeed rise from the ashes of sorrow.
In the years following the accident, Marshall won back to back NCAA Championships, a bowl game, opened a new stadium and in 1999 earned the title of winningest team of the decade with 114 victories – more than any team in NCAA Division I-A or I-AA history.
“It was just one of those classic examples of when there is a united force and a ‘yes we can’ mentality great things can happen,” Hulick said. “(The team) wanted to play, people wanted to score, it was just phenomenal. There is a great deal of pride that is not unlike Murray State, we have pride in our athletic programs and you can see it in this community. The same is true of Huntington.”
Roger Weis, Murray State professor of youth and nonprofit leadership and graduate of Marshall University, knew people on the plane.
“I had one fraternity brother who had just graduated and was on the plane and then I had a little brother Bobby who was the backup quarterback; he was engaged so we consoled his fiancé who was pretty torn up,” Weis said. “It was very gloomy, very depressing.” However, the atmosphere on campus did not remain depressed for long, Weis said, but students and a new football program responded to the hopelessness and soared past the public’s expectations.
“It was like the rising of the Pheonix, this airplane went down and then it just started going up,” he said. “We were truly in ashes, our emotions and thoughts – it was pretty bad, but everybody really did help each other.”
Don Robertson, vice president of student affairs for Murray State and Marshall University graduate, served as director of student activities at Marshall beginning in 1978, a position which included coordination of the annual memorial ceremony.
“I got to know a lot of the family of the victims who would come to the ceremony; it is still something remembered and has great impact on the city,” he said. “It’s a very solemn day, on that anniversary, a lot of people gather and will go to the cemetery which is up on a hill where the graves are.”
Success in the wake of devastation is the inspiring and defining tale of the Marshall football team and community and their legacy will never be forgotten.