- Associated Press - Saturday, May 27, 2017

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. (AP) - The Nov. 14, 1970, plane crash involving the Marshall University football team that killed 75 people is the worst air disaster in American sports history.

It’s also something Pickerington resident Dennis Foley has suffered with for 47 years - because he was not on the plane, but many of his friends and teammates were.

“First there’s anger,” he said. “And further, it’s survivor’s guilt. In the beginning, it’s bad. And many, many of the survivors talk to me and tell me the same thing.”

He knew every one of the 37 players and several coaches on the plane who died. The flight also carried school officials, fans and Marshall staff.

The plane crashed in rain and fog near Tri-State Airport in Huntington, W.Va., while attempting to land as the team was returning home from a 17-14 loss at East Carolina University earlier that day. The Federal Aviation Administration determined the pilot was flying lower than he thought, causing the plane to crash into a mountain and explode.

For many years, Foley kept his feelings private and only recently talked publicly about the crash and its aftermath. He’s turned down opportunities to be a consultant on TV and movie projects about the story. Now, he’s breaking the silence.

THE STRUGGLE OF SURVIVAL

Foley was a linebacker on the Thundering Herd football team in 1969. But an ankle injury suffered while playing basketball in the summer of 1970 in his hometown of Carteret, N.J., forced him to leave the team shortly after and miss the crash of the chartered Southern Airways DC-9.

He was among just a handful of players and coaches who were not on the doomed flight for various reasons.

“No one understands,” Foley said. “You’re talking 37 or 35 guys that every single one of them, every single one of them, I hit them on the football field and they hit me. We went out and drank beers together. We took showers together. We ate at the same training table, we lived in the same dorms. We were all away from home.

“We all came there as strangers and we’re growing up together. And then. They’re gone. All of them. At 19 years old, 20 years old. And you’re left. Why would want to talk about that? Why would you want to think about that? So you put it away.”

Foley said people cannot work through such a tragedy. Instead, he stated that those who remain bury it and isolate themselves.

“Something this massive, it’s just devastating on you,” he said. “You can’t get away from it. You can’t. No matter what you do, you can’t get away from it. After enough exposure to it and after maybe enough thinking about it and letting come back in slowly, then you can start talking about it.”

Stuart Cottrell and Rick Lech were two of those killed in the crash. Both players lived on the same dorm floor as Foley, and Lech was his best friend at the time.

Also among the dead was kicker Marcelo Lajterman, Foley’s roommate and fellow New Jersey resident. In fact, Foley was the only one of the five New Jersey players on the team who did not die in the crash.

AN UNSPEAKABLE TRAGEDY

Marshall recruited Foley to play from Carteret High School, where he was named All-Conference and All-County. Going into the 1970 season, the Marshall media guide listed him as a 5-foot-10, 190-pound sophomore. Foley was No. 55 and is pictured in the 1970 team photo shot just a couple months before so many of his teammates would die.

But the basketball injury, which Foley did not disclose to the Thundering Herd coaching staff, left him out of football shape and not ready for the season. That prompted linebacker coach Red Dawson to suggest he sit out the season and come back the following year, a move that no doubt saved Foley’s life.

He was on a year-to-year scholarship at Marshall and had a full scholarship for his sophomore season.

“I intended, before the crash, I really intended to go back the next year,” Foley said. “But I didn’t. I couldn’t do it.”

Foley, who did not listen to the East Carolina game that day, was in an elevator on campus when two guys told him about the crash. He went with them to the airport and found the single road leading up the hill to the terminal clogged with cars and people. But they eventually got to the top of the mountain near the airport. The crash site, though, was on the other side of the airport.

After running back to the airport parking lot, Foley and the men came across a van driver who was there to pick up the coaching staff.

“He told us that he was standing outside the terminal waiting for the plane, and he heard the engines of the plane coming,” Foley said. “And then it blew up in a fireball. He saw a fireball.”

Foley then met two Marshall cheerleaders, one of whom had both parents on the plane. The Thundering Herd cheerleading squad did not go with the team on that fateful day.

“I know she must have been in shock,” Foley said.

Foley and his friends then returned to the Marshall campus, and Foley went to Gullickson Hall where there was a help center set up for students with grief counselors and medical personnel.

But he did meet two female students on campus that night. One lived in his dorm and Foley didn’t know who the other one was. That unknown student, however, turned out to be his future wife, Debbie. So on the night of the unspeakable tragedy, Foley met the woman that he is still married to today.

“I didn’t remember that was the night we met until later on,” Foley said.

Foley also had to call his mother back in New Jersey, where she still lives. It is a good thing he acted quickly because newspapers in the New York/New Jersey area the next day listed him among the dead. Reporters even called his mother to get her reaction to what was assumed to be her son’s death.

“I called my mom and the first thing I said, she had heard nothing about it, I said, ‘Mom, they’re all dead. They’re dead. They’re all dead,’” Foley said.

VISITING THE CRASH SITE

Foley went to the crash site with a friend two days later and finally saw the devastation first-hand. The site is in a heavily wooded area just a short distance from the airport.

“Everything was mangled, except there was one motor,” he said. “There was one that was intact. And it was the only thing you could even recognize was a plane. I can see it right now while we’re talking about it. We started walking down the hill and there were two state troopers there. They just kind of waved us back and said something. We just kept going. We weren’t running, but we were going to get as close as we could to the plane.”

But the state troopers ran toward Foley and his friend, and they knew they could get no closer. But the troopers let them stand where they were and did not chase them away. From there, Foley got a good look at the wreckage.

“I don’t know how long we stood there,” he said. “We were there for a long time. Nobody said a word.”

He said his memory of the crash site is still better than the actual pictures taken of it.

“That one engine was just sitting there,” Foley said. “We stayed there for a while. The police stayed right in front of us. They weren’t going to let us have an attempt to get close, and I understand. And then we left.”

Foley then went back to campus and then on to Lajterman’s funeral in New Jersey a few days later. Lajterman’s uncle picked up Foley and his mother and took them to the funeral. Foley and the uncle remained friends until the uncle died.

KEEPING THE MEMORY ALIVE

After all these years, Foley did not talk publicly about the crash until he was the featured speaker last November at the annual memorial service at Marshall. He would not speak to the producers of the 2000 PBS documentary “Ashes to Glory.” Foley turned down the chance to be a consultant for the 2006 movie about the crash, “We Are Marshall.” He also refused interview requests from ESPN over the years.But after speaking at the memorial, he agreed to tell his story to the Eagle-Gazette, the first time he has ever talked to the media about his experience.

“I wanted to give the (memorial) speech for three reasons,” Foley said. “First of all, it’s been such a long time and there are still many people like me and they show up down there (Huntington) every year. I know firsthand that part of the feeling is you feel alone. No one can understand what you’ve been through. And I wanted to let all those people know that there are some of us out here. We may be distant and apart, but we do understand. You’re not alone.

“No. 2, I think that it’s been so long that there’s been so many students at Marshall, teachers at Marshall, even alumni at Marshall that really don’t understand or really know what this is about. They know there was a crash and they know the football team was killed. But it’s not personal to them. They don’t understand the magnitude of it. And I hoped that my words would show them the magnitude of the crash and what it did to so many, many people.”

Foley said there had been a small movement of people who want to stop having the annual memorial service. He said he wanted his words to make them realize how wrong that would be.

“I wanted my words to touch these people,” he said. “I said that it’s different for me. I should never forget. I can’t forget it. And maybe my words would touch them a little bit, and they’d think about what I said.”

Another reason for speaking was to inspire others never to forget and to pass the tragic story on.

The crash also affected Debbie Foley, who was a freshman in 1970. She said knew most of the players, at least enough to recognize them when she saw them.

“When you look at all these people dying at such a young age and to have that happen to you in college, it changes your college time, which is supposed to be the most fun time,” she said. “And it still was in a lot of ways. But we got back to campus, and all you think about is that. It was a crash. We lost all these people. They were young people. When something like that happens to you when you’re that young … as you get older you realize those things are going to happen. But at this (college) time in your life you don’t expect it to happen.”

GROWING OUT OF TRAGEDY

Upon graduating from Marshall in 1973 with an accounting degree, Dennis Foley went on to work for the Internal Revenue Service in a variety of positions, including as an agent. He also served as an expert witness in tax-related court cases. Because of his job, he has flown hundreds of times, but only a handful of occasions did he think about the Marshall crash while taking off or landing.

He and Debbie Foley are the parents of three sons. Dennis Foley doesn’t watch much football but does like the Cleveland Browns. His main sports passion, however, is the Columbus Blue Jackets of the NHL.

But the Foleys haven’t forgotten their Marshall roots, as they have a significant amount of Thundering Herd memorabilia around their house. They also have numerous photos and newspaper articles about the crash, including some newspapers that still look brand new.

Debbie Foley said the crash caused Marshall to come of age as a school.

“A lot of what’s promoted and stuff is because of the crash,” she said. “They would have never had all of the NFL players that came into Marshall over the years. So I think that it’s been good for the university in a sad way. But you have to have silver linings in things.”

Dennis Foley agreed and spoke of Marshall’s rising from depths of the crash to one of the more successful college football programs in the country, spawning NFL stars like Chad Pennington, Randy Moss, and Troy Brown, among many others.

Marshall went from the worst disaster in sports history to in the 1990s being the most winningest football team in the whole decade,” he said. “And that’s just amazing that they did that. And I really believe that they probably would not have done that without the crash and would not have been so successful. Marshall coming back like that was contagious. Even the school itself, I believe, became better academic-wise. If you can come back from this, you can come back from anything. You can excel in anything.”

Debbie Foley said another silver lining to come out of the crash is the relationship the Foleys still have with Lajterman’s family.

“We’re family with them,” she said. “We talk to them often, and we keep in touch. If it’s been a little while, we email them or text them or call them. They’re just great people.”

But no matter how many silver linings may have come from the tragedy, it is something that probably will haunt Dennis Foley for the rest of his life.

“For people that were very close to this, including myself, no one understands how much it runs your whole life,” he said. “I mean, just your whole life. It determines the people you talk to and interact with and then become friends with. It determines what you talk about, what you think about. It comes in so often to your life. It’s hard to explain. Just out of nowhere.”


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