Kenova, WV Marshall University Football Team Airplane Crash, Nov 1970

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'It Was That Close'

Tree Tops Sent Plane Into Hill

By James R. Polk
KENOVA - (AP) - A brush with tree tops on a high ridge rising in front of a rainy airport runway was blamed Sunday for sending Marshall University's chartered football jetliner cartwheeling into a hillside, killing all 75 persons aboard.
"If it hadn't been for those trees, he would have probably made it. It was that close," said JOHN H. REED, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
REED and federal investigators combed the backwoods area eight miles west of Huntington for clues Sunday, while firemen finished the task of carrying charred bodies from the twisted, burnt wreckage of the plane that carried Marshall's football team, its coaching staff, boosters and others.
The disaster was the second in less than two months to cut down a college football team. But investigators found no similarity with the 31-death Wichita State crash in the Rocky Mountains east of Denver Oct. 2, which killed 14 players.
The Southern Airways twin-engine DC9, dropping through a curtain of rain clouds toward the Tri-State Airport after dark Saturday, sheered off the thick tops of poplar and locust trees on the ridge, leaving a trail of metal in the bramble below.
While it was the Thundering Herd's fourth road game of the season, all other road trips were made by bus. The university chartered the plane for the trip to more distant Greenville, N. C., where Marshall lost earlier Saturday to East Carolina 17-14.
Marshall also had planned to travel by bus to the one remaining game on its schedule next Saturday against Ohio University at Athens, Ohio. That game now will not be played, leaving Marshall's final record for the season 3-6.
REED said Sunday night the jetliner clipped the first tree 66 feet above the ground on the ridge.
"Obviously the aircraft was lower than it should have been, but we don't know why," REED said. "Our job is to find the reason."
FAA officials confirmed the Huntington airport has no landing assistance radar and had no red warning lights at the top of the elevated ridge.
The weather report cited by REED listed along with the rain and fog, smoke that may have come from an industrial plant immediately in line with the ridge.
REED discarded any suggestion of similarity between the latest disaster and the Wichita State crash.
"We see none," he said. "In this instance, you had a modern aircraft under a charter operation by an established airline."
He pointed out the Wichita State chartered plane was a 20-year old propeller craft being flown by pilots
from a firm not licensed to operate a plane of its size.
REED said the cockpit recorder, recovered and flown to Washington earlier in the day, disclosed only normal conversations before the crash.
The tape indicated the jetliner nosed into the hillside only three seconds after skimming the trees, he said. A clock in the cockpit was stopped at 7:37 p. m.
The plane plunged into the muddy hillside on the opposite side of the hollow two miles short of its intended target, cartwheeled upside down and burst into flames.
A special FBI team was still trying to identify the blackened bodies late Sunday.
At least 44 of the bodies are the Marshall University players and coaches. Other victims included some of Huntington's most prominent people – three doctors, a city councilman, a newly elected state legislator – and the town of 73,000 was left grief-stricken.
Monday and Tuesday were declared days of mourning on the 8,500 student Marshall campus. There will be no classes.

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