Editor's note: Nov. 14 will mark the 50th anniversary of one of history's worst accidents involving a sports team – the 1970 plane crash that killed 75 people, including 37 players on Marshall University's Thundering Herd football team, five coaches, including head coach Rick Tolley who grew up in Mullens, two athletic trainers and the athletic director, along with 25 supporters, and the plane's five crew members. The tragedy was re-told in the 2006 movie “We Are Marshall.” This story was initially published in conjunction with the release of the movie; the first paragraph has been updated.
Jack Bias, who now serves as a member of the Pineville Town Council, was among the police officers who responded to the historic Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash that took Marshall University’s football team.
It was a foggy, frigid night when the twin-engine charter carrying Marshall University’s 1970 football team went down while approaching Tri-State Airport. The team had suffered a 17-14 defeat to East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., earlier in the day, and boarded Flight 932 just after 6:30 p.m. One hour later, all 75 people aboard — players, coaches, and supporters — would die in the horrific accident.
Bias, now a retired Wyoming County Sheriff’s deputy, was working for the Barboursville Police Department at the time. Then, he wasn’t much older than the players on the plane.
“I was at home and it came across the TV,” Bias recalled. “I knew there was a plane crash at the airport and I was kind of listening. Then I got a phone call to meet at the State Police barracks in Huntington.”
Bias, who grew up in Huntington, remembered there being between 30 and 40 people in a large room at the State Police headquarters. All were police officers, troopers, and rescue personnel from West Virginia, Kentucky, and probably Ohio, he said.
“We didn’t call it Homeland Security then, we called it Civil Defense,” Bias said. “One guy from Civil Defense told us it was the Marshall plane. Then he paused for a minute and told us, ‘There are no survivors.’
“You could have heard a pin drop in that room.”
By the time Bias took his position at the crash site, the fire was down to smoldering rubble.
“It was an awful smell,” he recalled. “It was still smoldering — the smell was like burning fuel, bodies and materials.
“It was damp and cold, just a dreary night.”
Onlookers had started to surround the site. Bias was among the officers assigned to protect the crash site.
Bias remembers what struck him immediately was the size of the engines.
“There were these two big — I mean big — engines. Then there was a section of the plane with a row of windows. There was metal above the windows and metal below.
“The rest of it, you could pick up in your hand and carry it off.
“I thought that was strange — these three big pieces and everything else had just been obliterated almost.
“It was a horrible sight.”
Rescue workers still searched for survivors even though they were almost certain there were none. The rescue effort, however, soon became a recovery mission. Due to the weather, that mission was postponed until the following day. Bias returned at 8 a.m.
“In the daylight, you could actually see the mountain where the plane had come over and tore the tree tops off. It looked like it had veered to the right, then went across the road and buried up,” Bias recalled.
The plane cut a path 95 feet wide and 279 feet long, according to historic accounts.
The plane had crossed Rt. 75, then flipped, plowing nose-first into the nearly knee-deep mud just over 4,000 feet from the runway.
Bias stood his post near Rt. 75, while ambulances and hearses from throughout the tri-state area filed onto the crash site.
“There were ambulances and hearses from everywhere. It was cold, spitting snow. I could see inside the majority of the ambulances; I could see these long body bags. It seemed like an endless parade of ambulances with body bags.”
As the day wore on, however, Bias said the bags became smaller. Rumors among the emergency personnel indicated there were no more bodies, workers had begun recovering body parts.
“It was very disturbing to say the least,” he emphasized.
More scuttlebutt among the emergency personnel indicated the pilots had never flown into Tri-State Airport.
The official report determined the cause of the crash was uncertain. “... the probable cause of this accident was the descent below Minimum Descent Altitude during a non-precision approach under adverse operating conditions, without visual contact with the runway environment,” according to the report.
Investigative officials guessed it could have been improper use of cockpit instrumentation or an altimetry systems error, according to published accounts.
The recovered flight recorder indicated the crew had begun to scrub the landing attempt in an effort to go around and try again, according to published reports.
In the days that followed, a temporary morgue was set up in the National Guard Armory in an effort to identify the bodies. Six victims could not be identified and the remains were buried together, according to published reports.
Bias had a friend who played on the team. He didn’t make the flight because he had the flu and the coach wouldn’t let him play, Bias said. He was married, with a baby, Bias remembered.
“He would have went had it not been for him getting sick,” he said.
As for the crash victims, Bias didn’t know them personally.
“That’s one of those things where you don’t know them, but you feel like you’re part of them. That’s our team.”