Southern Airways Flight 932 was a chartered Southern Airways Douglas DC-9 domestic United States commercial jet flight from Stallings Field (ISO) in Kinston, North Carolina, to Huntington Tri-State Airport/Milton J. Ferguson Field (HTS) in Ceredo, West Virginia. At 7:36 pm on November 14, 1970, the aircraft crashed into a hill just short of the Tri-State Airport, killing all 75 people on board.
The plane was carrying 37 members of the Marshall University Thundering Herd football team, nine members of the coaching staff, 25 boosters, and four flight crew members. The team was returning home after a 17–14 loss to the East Carolina Pirates at Ficklen Stadium in Greenville, North Carolina.
At the time, Marshall's athletic teams rarely traveled by plane, since most away games were within easy driving distance of the campus. The team originally planned to cancel the flight, but changed plans and chartered the Southern Airways DC-9. The accident is the deadliest tragedy affecting any sports team in U.S. history.
The aircraft was a 95-seat, twin jet engine Douglas DC-9-30 with tail registration N97S. The airliner's crew was Captain Frank H. Abbot, 47; First Officer Jerry Smith, 28; flight attendants Pat Vaught and Charlene Poat. All were qualified for the flight. Another employee of Southern Airways, Danny Deese, was aboard the flight to coordinate charter activities. This flight was the only flight that year for the Marshall University football team.
The airliner left Stallings Field at Kinston, North Carolina, and the flight proceeded to Huntington without incident. The crew established radio contact with air traffic controllers at 7:23 pm with instructions to descend to 5,000 feet. The controllers advised the crew that there was "rain, fog, smoke and a ragged ceiling" at the airport, making landing more difficult but possible. At 7:34 pm, the airliner's crew reported passing Tri-State Airport's outer marker. The controller gave them clearance to land. The aircraft began its normal descent after passing the outer marker, but did not arrest its descent and hold altitude at 1240 ft, as required by the assigned instrument approach procedure. Instead, the descent continued for another 300 ft for unknown reasons, apparently without either crewmember seeing the airport lights or runway.
The airliner continued on final approach to Tri-State Airport when it collided with the tops of trees on a hillside 5,543 feet (1,690 m) west of runway 11 (now runway 12). The plane burst into flames and created a swath of charred ground 95 feet (29 m) wide and 279 feet (85 m) long. According to the official NTSB report, the accident was "unsurvivable". The aircraft "dipped to the right, almost inverted and had crashed into a hollow 'nose-first'". By the time the plane came to a stop, it was 4,219 feet (1,286 m) short of the runway and 275 feet (84 m) south of the middle marker. The fuselage was reduced to what the NTSB described as a "powder-like substance." The remains of six passengers were never identified.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident and their final report was issued on April 14, 1972. In the report the NTSB concluded that the probable cause was that "...the accident was the result of a descent below Minimum Descent Altitude during a nonprecision approach under adverse operating conditions, without visual contact with the runway environment...". They further stated, "The Board has not been able to determine the reason for the (greater) descent, although the two most likely explanations are an improper use of cockpit instrumentation data, or (b) an altimetry system error." At least one source says that water that had seeped into the plane's altimeter could have thrown off its height readings, leading the pilots to believe the plane was higher than was actually the case.
The board made three recommendations as a result of this accident, including recommendations for heads-up displays, ground proximity warning devices, and surveillance and inspection of flight operations.
On November 15, 1970, a memorial service was held at the indoor, 8,500-seat Veterans Memorial Fieldhouse with moments of silence, remembrances, and prayers. The following Saturday another Memorial Service was held at the outdoor, 18,000-seat Fairfield Stadium. Across the nation many expressed their condolences. Classes at Marshall, along with numerous events and shows by the Marshall Artists Series (and the football team's game against the Ohio Bobcats), were canceled and government offices were closed. A mass funeral was held at the Field House and many of the dead were buried at the Spring Hill Cemetery, some together because bodies were not identifiable.
The effects of the crash on Huntington went far beyond the Marshall campus. Because it was the Herd's only charter flight of the season, boosters and prominent citizens were on the plane, including a city councilman, a state legislator, and four physicians. Seventy children lost at least one parent in the crash, with 18 of them left orphaned.
The crash of Flight 932 almost led to the discontinuation of the university's football program. Jack Lengyel, Marshall University students, and Thundering Herd football fans convinced acting Marshall President Donald N. Dedmon to reconsider canceling the program in late 1970. In the weeks afterward, Lengyel was aided in his attempts by receivers coach Red Dawson. Dawson was a coach from the previous staff who had driven back from the East Carolina game along with Gail Parker, a freshman coach. Parker flew to the game, but didn't fly back, having switched places with Deke Brackett, another coach. Dawson and Parker were buying boiled peanuts at a country store in rural Virginia when they heard the news over the radio. Before the trip, they were scheduled to go on a recruiting mission to Ferrum College after the ECU — Marshall game (in an effort to recruit Billy Joe Mantooth, who eventually transferred to WVU instead). After the crash, Red Dawson helped bring together a group of players who were on the junior varsity football team during the 1970 season, as well as students and athletes from other sports, to form a 1971 football team. Many had never played football before.
Head coach Rick Tolley was among the crash victims. Jack Lengyel was named to take Tolley's place on March 12, 1971, after Dick Bestwick, the first choice for the job, backed out after just one week and returned to Georgia Tech. Lengyel, who came from a coaching job at the College of Wooster, was hired by recently hired athletic director Joe McMullen. Lengyel played for McMullen at the University of Akron in the 1950s.
The Marshall University football team only won two games during the 1971 season, against Xavier and Bowling Green. Jack Lengyel led the Thundering Herd to a 9–33 record during his tenure, which ended after the 1974 season.
Marshall University President John G. Barker and Vice-President Donald Dedmon appointed a Memorial Committee soon after the crash. The committee decided upon one major memorial within the campus, a plaque and memorial garden at Fairfield Stadium, and a granite cenotaph at the Spring Hill Cemetery; the Memorial Student Center was designated a memorial as well.
On November 12, 1972, the Memorial Fountain was dedicated at the entrance of the Memorial Student Center. The sculpture's designer, Harry Bertoia, created the $25,000 memorial that incorporated bronze, copper tubing and welding rods. The 6500-pound, 13-foot-high (2900-kilogram, four-meter-high) sculpture was completed within a year and a half. A plaque was placed on the base on August 10, 1973 reading:
Every year, on the anniversary of the crash, the fountain is shut off during a commemorative ceremony and not activated again until the following spring.
Each year on the anniversary of the crash, those who died are mourned in a ceremony on the Marshall University campus in Huntington, West Virginia. A number of the victims are buried in a grave site in the Spring Hill Cemetery in Huntington; 20th Street, the road that leads from the cemetery to the campus, was renamed Marshall Memorial Boulevard in their honor.
On November 11, 2000, the We Are Marshall Memorial Bronze was dedicated. The bronze 17×23-foot (5×7-meter) statue was created by artist Burl Jones of Sissonville, West Virginia, and cost $150,000. It is based upon ideas by John and Ann Krieger of Huntington. It was donated to the university by Marshall fans and is attached to the Joan C. Edwards Stadium on the west façade. It was unveiled to thousands 90 minutes before the game with the Miami University RedHawks.
On December 11, 2006, a memorial plaque was dedicated at the plane crash site. The ceremony featured guest speakers William "Red" Dawson and Jack Hardin. The Ceredo and Kenova fire departments were recognized at the event.
The memorial plaque reads:
Another plaque memorializing the 1970 Marshall football team was unveiled at East Carolina University on the same day and can be seen at the guest team entrance of Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. Featured speakers were Chancellor Steve Ballard, Athletic Director Terry Holland, Pirates’ broadcaster Jeff Charles, and Marshall President Stephen Kopp.
A memorial bell tower is being planned for a location on WV 75 near Exit 1 along Interstate 64.
November 14, 2013, marked the first time that Marshall had played a road game on an anniversary of the disaster. As a memorial to the 75 victims, the Marshall players wore the number 75 on their helmets. The tribute was repeated later that season, when Marshall met Rice in the 2013 Conference USA Football Championship game.Marshall University: Ashes to Glory, a documentary by Deborah Novak and John Witek released on November 18, 2000, about the crash and the subsequent recovery of the Marshall football program in the decades following.
We Are Marshall, a film dramatizing the crash of Flight 932 and its repercussions, premiered on December 12, 2006 in Huntington, West Virginia. It starred Matthew McConaughey as Jack Lengyel and Matthew Fox as Red Dawson. The DVD of the film was released September 18, 2007.