Friday, March 30, 2012

Chapter Four excerpt: "Unforgettable, Unbelievable"

The Campus Christian Center at MU

       Those who lived near the airport recall hearing an ear-splitting sound when Marshall’s plane exploded. According to reports, the impact was so great that it caused houses in the surrounding area to shake. The crash scene did not stay isolated for long. Less than thirty minutes afterward, people swarmed the area. It took the authorities nearly two hours to finally clear the site of friends and family members of the victims, the news media, and onlookers.
       One of the most mind-numbing sequences on this horrible night involved the wife and three children of a local sportscaster who was a passenger on that flight. Despite the foggy conditions, they watched and waited for the plane to arrive as scheduled, but it never touched down on the runway. The DC-9 jet disappeared behind a hill. And then there was a brilliant flash followed by a mushroom cloud of black smoke, made visible at nighttime by the brightness from the explosion.
       Predictably, the plane crash produced an emotional tsunami of mourning and depression for everyone with any kind of connection to the school or the city.
       Larry Isom heard about the crash and got a sick feeling in his stomach. Isom, a sophomore, was not an athlete, but he had more than a passing interest in Thundering Herd football. He and cornerback Bobby Joe Hill were best friends. In Isom’s mind, it was unthinkable that Bobby, known to everyone as “Bee-Bop,” might be dead. Soon after the news broke, Isom was among a group of twelve students who crammed inside two cars for the drive to the airport. Everybody felt the urgency to get to the crash scene as soon as possible.
       When they got there, the main road was blocked off. The car Isom rode in pulled up beside one of the National Guardsman on duty. They would not be allowed to travel any farther. Before turning around and driving off, one of the students in the car insisted on gleaning more information from the guardsman.
       “Is this the football team’s plane that went down?”
       The guardsman responded with a company-line response. “I can’t say. Right now, there’s a lot that we just don’t know.”
       Not satisfied, another student in the car spoke up. “Just tell us. Is it?”
       The guardsman relented. “You all are going get me in trouble. I’m not
supposed to be telling you any of this. Yes, it is Marshall’s football team.”
       The reaction to the news that nobody wanted to hear didn’t settle very well. Wailing and screaming combined with moans of anguish pierced the night air.
       As the car turned around to leave, Isom heard shouting coming from the other carload of students. Somebody knew about an alternate route that would put them closer to the scene. It was the only accessible way to get to that part of the mountain where the crash occurred.
       One car followed the other down this narrow dirt road, which wasn’t too far from the highway. When the two carloads arrived, they quickly realized they were not alone. One side of the road was littered with cars, trucks, and ambulances. The flashing lights from the ambulances and the steady beams from the headlights of the other vehicles aided visibility to some extent.
       Isom got out of the car and noticed a group of nearly a hundred people running in one direction. Instinctively, he followed the pack and bypassed a lot of folks on the way. Nobody seemed to care about the numbing cold or the muddy terrain, which caused more than a few folks to slip and slide as they moved about. The foggy conditions didn’t help any either.
       After running what seemed like a mile-long distance, Isom and the others turned off the road and ventured into the woods. Even though the area had been roped off by the emergency rescue team, it wasn’t enough to keep people away. There were no state police, National Guardsmen, or volunteer firemen in the vicinity, so the crowd of onlookers continued to press their way through the dense woods.
       It wasn’t long before they came to a small hill. People started walking and running up this slightly steep incline. They were not prepared for what they saw when they reached the top: a front-and-center view of the Marshall plane lying at the bottom of the hollow. Debris and pieces of the aircraft were strewn about over a radius of about a quarter of a mile. Some of the wreckage continued to burn for several hours after the crash.
       “After a while, we realized we weren’t going to find anybody,” Isom said. “It was time to go. The people I rode to the airport with had already left. To get back to the school, me and a friend of mine had to ride in the trunk of a car.”
       Back on campus, mass anxiety reigned. There was still no “official” word about survivors. Time inched along at a snail’s pace. With every passing hour, it became more and more apparent that the unthinkable had occurred. Marshall had a major catastrophe on its hands.

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