Never Forgotten

Published 11:09 am Thursday, November 13, 2008

PROCTORVILLE—It happened almost 40 years ago, but remains a moment that time won’t dim.

The Marshall University plane crash when 75 lost their lives in a split second on a cold, rainy Saturday night Nov. 14, 1970.

Bob Smith, veteran broadcast journalist, had just joined the news side of Huntington’s WHTN-TV, now WOWK-TV, when the chartered Southern Airways plane slammed into the side of the hills surrounding the Tri-State Airport in Kenova.

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On it was friend and colleague, Ken Jones, the television station’s sports director.

“Ken and I were dear friends,” Smith said. “He taught me how to play golf. We’d go out and play two or three times a week.”

The next morning at dawn, Smith hiked out to the crash site to do what a journalist has to do, report on what he saw.

“Right there where I was walking they were carrying the body bags out,” Smith, who lives now in Proctorville, recalled. “It was a horrible, devastating experience for me. I was greener than anything. I was trying to get a grip on myself as well as getting a grip on how to report the story.”

All over the crash site were rescue crews and Marshall officials.

Marshall’s football team had spent the afternoon of Nov. 14 taking on the East Carolina University Pirates at Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, N.C. The Pirates, Marshall’s conference rival, had pulled out a 17-14 victory.

A Southern Airways DC-9 was chartered to bring back 37 team members, eight coaches, 25 MU fans, four on the flight crew and an employee of the charter company.

The plane left Stallings Field in Kinston, N.C., and reached Huntington at 7:23 p.m. Controllers at Tri-State told the pilots rain and fog was making visibility difficult, but a landing was possible. Eleven minutes later a controller gave the OK for a landing.

Minutes later the fuselage burst into flames from the impact into the hillside. The crash was “unsurvivable,” according to the NTSB.

Born and bred in Huntington, Smith was a Marshall man, graduating in 1961. He joined the television station in 1967 as an announcer and weatherman.

“I’ve been in broadcasting for 30 years and the most important, most influential, most tragic story I was ever involved in was in the first few months of my employment,” Smith said. “It was never like that again in my career.”

On Friday, Marshall’s Student Government Association will conduct the annual memorial service at the Memorial Student Center plaza. There the bronze and copper 6,500-pound fountain designed by Italian artist Harry Bertoia and erected in memory of the victims will be turned off until spring.

“Our annual memorial service is a reflection of the sympathy and grief that we continue to feel as a Marshall University community 38 years after the tragedy,” Matt James, student body president, said in a news release. “The service is an example of how important the memories of those lost are to us … Nov. 14, 1970 is a date that ties all of us together.”

CNN correspondent Joe Johns, a 1980 MU graduate, will be the keynote speaker.

“It is something you don’t get over with in a hurry,” Smith said. “It lasts forever. You are thinking of all the people affected, good friends, co-workers, family members. Your lives are forever changed.”