HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — 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.
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.
"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.
"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.
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.
"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.
"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."
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.
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.
And on Saturday, the 16th-ranked football team won, defeating Middle Tennessee 42-14.