Marshall remembers lives lost in worst US sports disaster

White roses are placed along the edge of the Memorial Fountain to honor the 75 lives lost in the 1970 plane crash during the 50th Annual Memorial Fountain Service Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, at the Memorial Student Center in Huntington, W.Va. Marshall commemorated the 50th anniversary of the worst disaster in U.S. sports history, when 75 people, including most of the football team, were killed in a Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash.(Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch via AP)

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) — Marshall University commemorated the 50th anniversary of one of the worst sports disasters in U.S. history Saturday, a plane crash that killed most of the football team.

Marshall University athletic director Mike Hamrick speaks next to the Memorial Fountain on the school’s campus in Huntington, W.Va., Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020. The fountain is dedicated to the memory of 75 people killed in a Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash. Among the victims were 36 Marshall football players. (AP Photo/John Raby)

The solemn ceremony was held around a fountain dedicated to the crash victims on Marshall’s Huntington campus. As part of an annual rite, the fountain was turned off at the end of the service and will be turned back on in the spring.

Marshall University President Jerome Gilbert speaks as the university hosts its 50th Annual Memorial Fountain Service Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, at the Memorial Student Center in Huntington, W.Va. Marshall commemorated the 50th anniversary of the worst disaster in U.S. sports history, when 75 people, including most of the football team, were killed in a Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash.(Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch via AP)

“This plaza and this fountain are the heart of Marshall University,” university President Jerome Gilbert said. “It is the center of activity of the campus.

Marshall University hosts its 50th Annual Memorial Fountain Service on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, at the Memorial Student Center in Huntington, W.Va. Marshall commemorated the 50th anniversary of the worst disaster in U.S. sports history, when 75 people, including most of the football team, were killed in a Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash.(Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch via AP)

“Today, it is a sacred place.”

On Nov. 14, 1970, the chartered jet crashed in fog and rain into a hillside upon approach to an airport near Huntington as the team was returning from a game at East Carolina, killing all 75 on board.

FILE – In this Nov. 15, 1970, file photo, a fireman looks over the wreckage of a plane in Kenova near Huntington, W.Va. Marshall will mark the 50th anniversary of the plane crash that killed all 75 aboard on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, on the campus in Huntington. (AP Photo/Henry Griffin, File)

On Saturday, 75 candles surrounded the fountain. Gone were sons, fathers, mothers, classmates and fraternity brothers. The victims included 36 football players and 39 school administrators, coaches, fans, spouses and flight crew. White roses were laid by the fountain as each victim’s name was read at the ceremony.

Former Marshall cheerleader Lucianne Kautz Call lost her father, Charlie E. Kautz, who was the university’s athletic director. She graduated from Marshall in 1971.

Lucianne Kautz-Call, who lost her father in the Marshall plane crash, delivers the keynote address during Marshall University’s 50th Annual Memorial Fountain Service Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, at the Memorial Student Center in Huntington, W.Va. Marshall commemorated the 50th anniversary of the worst disaster in U.S. sports history, when 75 people, including most of the football team, were killed in a Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash.(Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch via AP)

“We each lost one or more family members,” said Call, the ceremony’s keynote speaker. “From that moment, we became one family.”

Marshall decided to continue the football program. But for the university and the entire community, it left a huge void. Some who were left off the flight, did not make the trip or lost loved ones spent the next five decades with crippling questions that had no answers.

A memorial plaque is displayed at the site of a 1970 plane crash that killed 75 people, including 36 Marshall football players Oct. 24, 2020, near Huntington, W.Va. The Nov. 14, 1970 crash remains the worst sports disaster in U.S. history. (AP Photo/John Raby)

“Yes, we grieve. Yes, we hurt,” Marshall athletic director Mike Hamrick said. “This event taught me how to celebrate someone’s life. That’s what we are doing today.”

Kenova native and Grammy-award winner Michael W. Smith opened the ceremony by singing “Amazing Grace.” He told the audience that he was 13 when the plane crashed eight minutes from his house.

“It forever changed my life,” Smith said. ”The town died. But the town came back.”

FILE – In this Nov. 15, 1970, file photo, Marshall assistant football coach Red Dawson, center, sits alone during a memorial service at the Veterans Memorial Field House in Huntington, W.Va., honoring the 75 people killed in a plane crash the night before. Marshall will mark the 50th anniversary of the plane crash that killed all 75 aboard on Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, on the campus in Huntington. (Lee Bernard/The Herald-Dispatch via AP, File)

The rebuilding of the football program was the subject of the 2006 movie “We are Marshall” starting Matthew McConaughey.

“50 years,” McConaughey said Saturday on Twitter. “Never forget. Never defeated. We Are Marshall.”

The ceremony was held by invitation-only due to the coronavirus pandemic and was made available online. Among those in the fountain audience were four football players from East Carolina who played in that 1970 game.

Russell Hutchinson, left, with the Ceredo Volunteer Fire Department, and Marshall University Athletic Director Mike Hamrick carry a wreath to the Memorial Fountain as Marshall University hosts its 50th Annual Memorial Fountain Service Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, at the Memorial Student Center in Huntington, W.Va. Marshall commemorated the 50th anniversary of the worst disaster in U.S. sports history, when 75 people, including most of the football team, were killed in a Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash.(Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch via AP)
FILE – In this Nov. 15, 1970, file photo, Dr. Donald Dedmon, acting President of Marshall University, stands at podium in Huntington, W.Va., as he speaks with friends and relatives of those killed in the plane crash that killed 75 people a day earlier and 36 Marshall football players. Dedmon and others quickly decided to keep football going. (AP Photo/Harry Cabluck, File)

On Friday, the 36 players who died in the crash received degrees from Marshall in their fields of study. Members of the current team also visited a nearby cemetery, where six players from the 1970 team whose bodies were never identified were buried.

White roses are placed along the edge of the Memorial Fountain to honor the 75 lives lost in the 1970 plane crash during the 50th Annual Memorial Fountain Service Saturday, Nov. 14, 2020, at the Memorial Student Center in Huntington, W.Va. Marshall commemorated the 50th anniversary of the worst disaster in U.S. sports history, when 75 people, including most of the football team, were killed in a Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash.(Sholten Singer/The Herald-Dispatch via AP)

And on Saturday, the 16th-ranked football team won, defeating Middle Tennessee 42-14.

Kassie Simmons
Kassie Simmons joined the team in January 2019 as a weekend journalist. She graduated from Virginia Tech in just two and a half years with a BA in multimedia journalism. During her short time at Virginia Tech, she served as the editor for the university’s chapter of The Tab. Kassie was named the top reporter for The Tab at Virginia Tech on multiple occasions and made the list for the top 30 reporters for The Tab in the U.S. She also studied theater performance and minored in creative writing. Before coming to WOAY, Kassie interned at WSLS in Roanoke and the Tidewater Review in her hometown of West Point, Va. She has loved following breaking news since her childhood and has a passion for delivering the stories people care most about. Kassie is excited to be working in Southern West Virginia and looks forward to all the adventures ahead of her. You can follow her on Twitter at @KassieLSimmons and like her page on Facebook. If you have a story you think she should check out, send her an email at ksimmons@woay.com.