The Crash of Southern Airways Flight 932
(aka "The Marshall University Football Team Crash")
November 14th, 1970
Near Huntington, West Virginia
On the rainy evening of November 14th, 1970, Southern Airways Flight #932 , a Douglas DC-9 commercial jet, left Kinston, North Carolina, at the scheduled time for the charter flight, consisting of the members of the Marshall University football team, its staff, supporters, and flight crew. The flight then proceeded to Huntington, West Virginia, without incident. The flight crew, led by Captain Frank H. Abbot and First Officer Jerry Smith, had established radio contact with the air traffic controllers at the airport at 7:23 PM with the announcement that they were to descend to 5,000 feet. The controllers had advised the crew that there was "rain, fog, smoke and a ragged ceiling" making landing more difficult but not impossible. At 7:34 PM, the airliner's crew reported passing the Tri-State Airport's outer marker for the runway; the controller gave them clearance to land. The airliner was on its final approach when it collided with the tops of trees on a hillside just over a mile west of the runway.
The Crash Site Today
The crash, devastated & demoralized, almost led to the school's football program indefinitely cancelled. Only a year earlier, the school had been ejected from the Mid-American Conference following more than 140 NCAA violations in regards to their recruitment practices. However, coach Jack Lengyel, students and players who were not on the flight , and "Thundering Herd" football fans convinced Marshall's dean, Dr. Donald Dedmon, to reconsider.
In the weeks after the crash, Lengyel, with the aid of receivers coach William "Red" Dawson, who was on a recruiting assignment in the Carolinas and had instead driven back from the East Carolina game, built a team of football players using the remnants of the 1970 team, junior varsity players, and other students and athletes in other sports (some who had never played football before), and fielded a team.
The 1971 team, deemed "The Young Herd," only won two games in 1971. But it was their first win against the Xavier Musketeers by the score of 15-13, on September 25h, 1971, on their home field, Fairfield Stadium, that was the most meaningful.
The National Transportation Safety Board investigated the accident. The report was issued on April 14th, 1972, and concluded "...the accident was the result of a descent below Minimum Descent Altitude during a non precision approach under adverse operating conditions, without visual contact with the runway environment...". The Safety Board further stated the "...two most likely explanations (for the greater descent) are (a) improper use of cockpit instrumentation data, or (b) and altimetry system error."
Southern Airways continued flight operations until 1979, when it was purchased and folded into Republic Airlines, which in 1986 was purchased by Northwest Airlines.
Several memorials to the team dot the area of Huntington, West Virginia, and Marshall University. In 1972, the university built and named a new student union, the 'Memorial Student Center', in honor of the team. The plaza of the center has a fountain, weighing 6,500 pounds and towering 13 feet in height, which does not flow from November 14 until the first day of spring football practice the following year, and bears a plaque reading: "They shall live on in the hearts of their families and friends forever and this memorial records their loss to the university and the community."
A granite cenotaph was placed at Spring Hill Cemetery, where six players, whose remains were burned beyond recognition, were buried. Most of the victims of the accident were buried in this cemetery near the cenotaph.
In 2006, a plaque was dedicated at East Carolina University and can be seen at the guest team entrance of Dowdy Ficklen Stadium. Also, a memorial plaque was placed near the crash site, sponsored by the Wayne County Genealogical & Historical Society, West Virginia State Archives, and the Department of Highways.
Most notably, in 2006, a motion picture, entitled "We Are Marshall", was produced and released. The film dramatizes the crash, and how the community and university rose from the ashes.
Annually, all flags throughout West Virginia fly at half-staff on the anniversary of the crash.