Marshall remains the worst sports-related air disaster

Updated: October 11, 2006, 6:48 PM ET
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. -- Marshall isn't alone in its grief for a team air disaster this year. Just last month, Wichita State University memorialized the 30th anniversary of its own football air tragedy.

In that crash, 31 of the 40 people aboard, 14 of whom football players, died when one of two chartered planes crashed into the Rocky Mountains west of Denver. The plane's pilot had taken a scenic route over the Rockies when he realized he had taken the plane too deep into a canyon and did not have enough room to gain altitude. He tried to raise the plane's nose and turn around, but it was too late.

Ironically, when the Wichita State plane crashed in October of 1970, officials at Marshall, a school whose athletic teams rarely traveled by plane, reconsidered their planned November trip to East Carolina. But instead of canceling plans to fly, Marshall changed them, chartering a Southern Airways DC-9 -- which was seen as a bigger, safer plane. That plane crashed after the game Nov. 14, killing all 75 people on board.

While Marshall ignored whispers to eliminate its football program, eventually finding success in the 1990s, Wichita State axed the program in 1986, citing the financial burden the downtrodden program was having on its other Division I sports.

Another horrific team crash happened in 1960 at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and is one reason that NFL broadcaster John Madden refuses to fly, instead bussing himself to each week's broadcast. Madden, who played at Cal Poly in 1957 and '58 and was a graduate assistant in 1960, stayed behind to coach a junior varsity game at Allan Hancock College when the plane carrying many of his former teammates went down near Toledo, Ohio, killing 22 of the 48 passengers. Sixteen of those who died were football players.

Considering how often college and professional sports teams fly (it isn't unusual for an NBA team to spend one week in three, maybe four different cities), it's a blessing that accidents like the one at Marshall don't happen more often. The charter of a professional sports team has never crashed, while the Marshall accident remains the worst sports-related air tragedy ever.

The only team crash of major national note since the Marshall crash happened in 1977, when a National Jet Services DC-3 crashed during takeoff in Evansville, Ind., killing all 29 people on board, including the entire 14-member Evansville basketball team and their coach, Bobby Watson.

Just three weeks ago the Arizona State football team received a scare when its America West charter was hit by lightning twice outside the Phoenix area, but nothing catastrophic happened. Despite the two large flashes, one of which caused the cabin to go black, the plane landed as scheduled without any major problems.

Plenty off famous athletes have died in their own individual crashes, including Knute Rockne, Rocky Marciano, Roberto Clemente, Thurman Munson, and Payne Stewart.

Rockne, 43 at the time, was one of eight killed in March of 1931 when one of the aircraft's wings separated his plane in mid-flight, forcing the plane to the ground during a heavy storm in Kansas.

Marciano was one day shy of his 46th birthday in 1969 when he and two others died in the crash of a Cessna during a heavy storm in Newton, Iowa.

Clemente was delivering relief supplies to victims of a Nicaraguan earthquake during the 1972 offseason, when he and three others were killed in their overloaded plane off the coast of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

And Stewart had won the U.S. Open just four months prior to his death last October, when his Lear jet lost cabin pressure, causing everyone on the plane to lose consciousness. The plane, which was flying from Orlando to Dallas, steered off-course after the loss in pressure, eventually crashing in Mina, S.D., after running out of fuel.

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer at ESPN.com.