Marshall football team plane crashed after ECU 50 years ago

For Carrie Gail Parker of Clayton, Saturday will be a bittersweet day of remembrance.

On Nov. 14, 1970, the charter flight carrying the Marshall football team crashed after a game against East Carolina in Greenville. Seventy-five lives were lost. Players, coaches,Thundering Herd supporters and flight crew members, all gone.

Parker’s father, Gail, was the only person who took the flight down from Huntington, West Virginia, who was not on the flight back. But while Gail Parker’s life was spared — his fate decided in a matter of seconds by Marshall coach Rick Tolley — he would be forced to live with the staggering loss of so many he had known, forced to live with the why-me questions that are wrapped into survivor’s guilt.

“He basically thought there was a reason he wasn’t on the plane, that there was more work for him to do here,” she said in an interview with the News & Observer this week. “But he had a lot of guilt that he had to resolve within himself.”

Carrie Gail Parker was 4 years old at the time and at home in Huntington, old enough to sense something awful had happened that night in 1970 but too young to grasp its full meaning.

Vince Carelli was one of her young playmates. She heard someone say Vince’s father, Al Carelli, one of the Marshall assistant coaches, had died. That was bad.

Her father, a graduate assistant coach, would soon be coming back home. That was good.

“And everyone was sad,” she said.

Only later would she learn of the anguish her father dealt with, of how the crash changed his life’s course and purpose, of how he was able to deal with it and make his life meaningful.

Gail Parker was Marshall’s freshman football coach in 1970. He aspired to stay in college coaching, hopeful to be a college head coach one day.

The Southern Airways charter for the ECU game was the only flight the Thundering Herd would take that 1970 season. There was enough room on the DC-9 for some of the school boosters, prominent Huntington business people who joined the travel party.

While Gail Parker was among those on the flight down, assistant coaches Red Dawson and Deke Brackett drove to Greenville, stopping to see a recruit in Virginia. After the game — the Herd lost 17-14 to the Pirates — Brackett was to fly back with the team and Parker drive with Dawson.

“At the last minute my father went up to Coach Tolley and said. ‘Are you sure you don’t want me to come back with the team?’ ” Carrie Gail Parker said. “Coach Tolley paused like he was thinking and said, no, go ahead with Red. Dad was from Virginia and it was always the plan that he would help scout.

“My Dad did not give up his seat on the plane. My Mom knew he wasn’t on the plane, that he was driving back.”

Parker and Dawson hopped in a university van at what was then Ficklen Stadium. The team left for the Kinston airport for what the “flight to eternity.”

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In this Nov. 15, 1970, file photo, a fireman looks over the wreckage of a DC-9 jet in Kenova, W.Va, that was carrying the Marshall University football team. AP File Photo

ECU won the game 17-14

Details about the football game have blurred. The crowd was sparse, with listed attendance of 8,711. The weather was described as overcast and dreary.

The Thundering Herd had beaten Kent State, 20-17, ending a four-game losing streak, the week before going to Greenville. The Pirates were 1-8, their only victory over Furman, and had lost at Marshall, 38-7, in 1969.

Before the game, ECU wide receiver Dick Corrada Jr. caught a pass close to midfield. Nearby was Marshall secondary coach Frank Loria, who had been an All-America safety at Virginia Tech and a player that Corrada had admired as a high school standout in Richmond, Va.

“I said something to him like ‘Coach, I really looked up to you when you played at Tech,’ ” Corrada said in an N&O interview this week. “He said, ‘Thanks, have a good game.’ I was thinking that’s cool. Back then you just didn’t talk to the other team before a game.”

It was a fleeting moment in time but a memory that would last 50 years.

Tony Guzzo’s short fourth-quarter field goal would be the difference that day. The Pirates, getting 142 yards rushing from Les Strayhorn and 135 from Billy Wallace, pulled out the victory and the teams quickly shook hands on the field when the game ended.

ECU offensive guard Mike Kopp told N&O at the time that he had battled a defensive lineman throughout the game who had his two front teeth missing. The sight of the player’s gap-toothed expressions would stay with him.

ECU coach Mike McGee tried to convince Tolley that with the rough weather, the Herd could stay overnight in Greenville and fly back the next morning. But it was a short flight. Tolley wanted to get back home. Southern Airways 932 left Kinston at 6:38 p.m. with 75 aboard.

The National Transportation Safety Board report said conditions were poor that night at Tri-State Airport, with light rain and fog. The plane was too low on its approach, the NTSB report said, and struck a hillside about a mile from the runway, crashing into trees at 7:36 p.m.

“We flew into that airport the year before, in daylight, and it really sneaks up on you. It was pretty scary,” Corrada said.

Corrada and other players were scattered about the town and campus and celebrating when they began to hear the news reports. McGee had the task of notifying the parents of the Marshall players who had stayed in Greenville, and a vigil was held later that night at Wright Auditorium.

“It was totally devastating,” said Corrada, 71, a member of the ECU athletics hall of fame. “We were in a total daze. It was like, ‘We just competed with these guys for three hours on the football field and that was the last time they were alive.’ I think about it all the time. It’s so sad, the saddest thing, really.”

A photo in that Sunday’s N&O showed Strayhorn running the ball with a Marshall defender in pursuit. The player, No. 56, wasn’t identified in the photo caption, but it was Jerry Stainback, a senior linebacker from Newport News, Va., known to most as “J.D.” A younger brother, John, was stationed in Vietnam. His parents were at the game.

Stainback was a day shy of his 24th birthday. Married, he left behind a wife, who was pregnant, and a 1-year-old son.

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Marshall’s Jerry Stainback (56) chases East Carolina’s Les Strayhorn as he heads upfield during East Carolina’s game against Marshall in Greenville, N.C., on Nov. 14, 1970. Stainback, a day shy of his 24th birthday, married with a 1-year-old son, died in the plane crash that evening. News and Observer file photo

ECU-Marshall 2020 game canceled

East Carolina was to play Marshall this season on Sept. 12 at Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.

The game first was postponed because of coronavirus concerns and tentatively reset for Dec. 5, but an announcement later was made that it would not be played.

In 2006, East Carolina unveiled a Marshall memorial in Dowdy-Ficklen. A plaque reads: “Their flight to eternity forever changed the lives of those who dearly loved them.” At this year’s game, Corrada and some of the other players from ECU’s 1970 team had planned another tribute, but it was not to be.

Marshall, 6-0 and ranked 16th nationally, will host Middle Tennessee State on Saturday, on Nov. 14. The total rebuild of the program in the past 50 years has produced two Division I-AA national titles in the 1990s before the move to Division I-A, and Marshall coach Doc Holliday — a former assistant coach on Chuck Amato’s staff at N.C. State — has won a Conference USA title and six bowl games.

The Marshall players killed that day in 1970 were to receive degrees from Marshall on Friday, the Associated Press reported. There again will be a remembrance ceremony at the Memorial Fountain on campus.

“This is the most important game we play all year. Not even close,” Holliday told the AP.

In an online letter to the Marshall student body this week, Holliday said. “This week is for the 75. Our football program is nationally ranked, undefeated and in contention for a conference championship. All our hopes and dreams are in front of us. … Take a moment and remember the 75 and what they have meant to our university. We will never forget them.”

Parker proud of her father

Carrie Gail Parker is a paralegal for the law firm Millberg Gordon Stewart in Raleigh. She has a small farm near Clayton and a horse she has had for more than 30 years.

Parker is proud of what her father was able to accomplish. Gail Parker and Red Dawson were near Greensboro when they heard the news on the radio about the crash. It was a life-changing moment.

Dawson would stay and coach at Marshall for two years before leaving. Parker was not retained in 1971 by Jack Lengyel, the Herd’s new head coach.

Parker became a high school guidance counselor and football coach in Virginia. He was successful in the insurance business with Farm Bureau while continuing to volunteer and coach football and began a Sunday School ministry at his church.

He was, his daughter said, always active.

“He went on to have a large impact on many, many people’s lives,” she said. “The people he coached, the people he worked with, his Sunday School class of young married folks. And he inspired the love of football in me and my brother.”

“We Are Marshall,” the movie released in 2006, centered on the aftermath of the tragedy and the healing and rebuilding that was needed — in Huntington, within the university, within its football program. Dawson’s personal story is integral to the movie’s story line but not Parker’s.

The movie’s premiere brought several of those touched by the tragedy back to Huntington, including Parker, who visited for the last time.

In a 2006 interview with the Virginian-Pilot, Gail Parker talked of the crash and not being on the flight and said, “We’re here for a purpose and I believe when my purpose is fulfilled, I’m out of here.”

Parker died in 2009 in Franklin, Va. He was 66.

“I really miss him,” Carrie Gail Parker said. “But I’m glad I wasn’t 4 years old when he passed away. I was a Daddy’s girl.”

In more than 30 years at The N&O, Chip Alexander has covered the N.C. State, UNC, Duke and East Carolina beats, and now is in his 11th season on the Carolina Hurricanes beat. Alexander, who has won numerous writing awards at the state and national level, covered the Hurricanes’ move to North Carolina in 1997 and was a part of The N&O’s coverage of the Canes’ 2006 Stanley Cup run.

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