Friday, November 13, 2015

#CollisionWithFame: Marshall Thundering Herd

The crash of Southern Airways Flight 932 on November 14 1970 is now well-established in the popular culture.  The 2006 feature film We Are Marshall raised awareness of this crash, with some degree of artistic license expected of Hollywood.  On the evening of November 14 1970, a Southern Airways DC-9 departed Kinston, North Carolina, carrying five crew and 70 passengers including 37 members of the Marshall football team. Weather conditions were wet, with fog on the night of the 14th.  The flight approached in the dark at just after 7:30 PM.  On approach, the DC-9 crashed short of the runway, striking trees and cartwheeling before erupting into flames.  All 75 persons aboard perished. 

                  The conclusion of the National Transportation Safety Board investigation was that the flight crew followed improper procedure that led directly to the crash, including the use
of the autopilot throughout the landing and a failure to make callouts (announcements of altitude) throughout the landing.  Another possible explanation noted by the NTSB was altimeter failure, specifically due to water seepage into the altimeter distorting the altitude of the flight. The command crew of Captain Frank Abbott and First Officer Jerry Smith had never flown into Tri-State airport before. The rest of the flight crew of Flight 932 was flight attendants Pat Vaught and Charlene Poat, and Southern charter flight coordinator Danny Deese.

                  The New York Times   reported that just eight months earlier, the FAA had refused to allow a $2.4 million expenditure to install glide-slope indicators for the hilltop Tri-State airport. The FAA initially blamed the airport authority for not coming up with its half of the funding to pay for the improvement, then later declared this was only an initial request.  Huntington officials noted two previous refusals in 1965 and 1966 by FAA to improve landing conditions at Tri-State. 

                  The crash devastated the city of Huntington.  In addition to the loss of much of the football team, coaching staff, and the athletic director, a city councilman, a state lawmaker, and four of the six physicians in the entire city perished.  From the NTSB Report:

The aircraft initially struck trees on a hill 5,543 feet west of the runway threshold, and cut a swath 95 feet wide and 279 feet long through the trees on a bearing of 110 degrees, 122 feet right of the Runway 11 centerline extended. Several sections of wing leading edge, one trailing edge flap moveable vane, and a flap track, all from the right wing, and three large sections of radome were located near the swath cut.

The main wreckage site was located 4,219 feet from the threshold of Runway 11, and approximately 225 feet south of the middle marker, The aircraft cut a swath 39 degrees below the horizontal through the trees at the wreckage site and came to rest in an inverted attitude.

Most of the fuselage was melted or reduced to a powder-like substance; however, several large pieces were scattered throughout the burned area. Examination of the various components indicated that the landing gear and flaps were fully extended at impact. The horizontal stabilizer setting was 5. 75 units noseup, which was in the normal range for the weight, and speed, in the approach configuration.


A severe ground fire at the main wreckage site followed impact. Firefighting activity at the crash site was limited to containing brush fires in the area. There was no evidence of in-flight fire.


This was a nonsurvivable accident.

The anguish of the community defies description.  So, rather than attempt to do justice to the Marshall crash through the lens of history, we instead leave you with the words of Huntington Herald Advertiser’s Jack Seamonds, penned for the Sunday morning edition of the paper on November 15 1970, titled “Sobs, Anguish Pierce Cold, Rainy Night At Marshall U. ”:

It was a rainy, cold night at Marshall University.

The first thing that hit you, that brought the story home, was the cries of those being treated by doctors for shock. Mattresses were lined up on the floor in Gullickson Hall, and students milled around the building in small groups, asking the fearful questions, "Is he, was he" "Were there any survivors...?" "And his wife, too?"

Two students carried a girl, limp and moaning, into the auditorium, where she was treated for shock. Hospital partitions shielded the victims of shock from prying eyes. But they failed to stop the sobs, the anguished cries. On heard the scream, "Alex, come back...Alex, please come back." And the listener was overcome with nausea.

Coeds were passing out coffee to the students, and athletic officials were busy trying to locate those rumored not to have been on the plane. And they were praying.

Names were mentioned . . . Morehouse . . . Tolley . . .and on and on...and always the fear kept coming back...Were they on the plane?

Across campus, a memorial service was underway in the Campus Christian Center. Seven MU ministers and some 400 MU students offered their prayer for the victims of the crash.

The service opened with a mournful, pensive African folk song, "Kumbaya."

"Someone's singing Lord, Kumbaya...Someones hurting Lord, Kumbaya...someone's praying, Lord, Kaumbaya [sic]." The lyrics filtered through the crowd, and no one dared not sing. And still the tears came.

And then the prayers. "They, those who have been so dear to us, have so soon passed by. He is watching us. He is here with us. He is binding us together. And the Lord shall watch over them, as they enter the Kingdom of Heaven." The ominous "Amen" was punctuated by the wailing of a siren on Fifth Ave.

A light, cold rain fell on the students, faculty and staff as they left the chapel. And the tears, the sobs, began anew.

"God, what has happened...what has happened," sobbed a red-eyed coed as she walked slowly back to her dormitory room.

Marshall is the best-known team plane crash, but it was not the first, nor the last.  Two other football teams had crashed prior to the Marshall tragedy.