NOTE: This story originally appeared in the Dec. 1, 2000 issue of The Hokie Huddler, which is now Inside Hokie Sports. The feature was named the best in the nation that year by CoSIDA. Tech head coach Frank Beamer and the Hokie football program will pay tribute to the victims of that 1970 plane crash Saturday before the game.
Memories of Marshall crash still vivid in Tech family
December 1, 2000
By Jimmy Robertson
The banners often adorn the walls within the stadium. And the message on them sounds so simple.
“From Ashes to Glory.”
Yet unlike at most downtrodden programs who use this slogan to describe their figurative rise from the ashes of despair to the heights of respectability, this message takes a more literal meaning for one particular university and one particular town. The school is Marshall University, which sits in the town of Huntington, W.Va., a blue-collar town situated on the banks of the Ohio River next to the Ohio-West Virginia border.
At the top of a hill overlooking the town stands a 10-foot granite memorial - a statue of a flame which fittingly serves as a constant reminder of the tragedy which occurred 30 years ago. At this spot, a plane carrying the Marshall University football team, coaching staff, a few members of the school’s administration, some of the university’s prominent boosters and several of the town’s government leaders crashed in a ball of fire, taking the lives of 75 people.
The charred remains left a nasty mark on this hill, a mark that through the years has faded. But more importantly, the tragedy has left an indelible mark on the lives of a nation, a mark that may never fade.
The tragedy reached out and grasped the heart of Blacksburg, Va., nearly four hours away. It robbed Virginia Tech of two of its former athletes, including perhaps the greatest ever to play at Tech.
Frank Loria came to Virginia Tech in 1964. A native of Clarksburg, W.Va., Loria, like many West Virginians during his day, decided to leave his home state and make the trek to Blacksburg to play for head coach Jerry Claiborne.
He arrived in town with little fanfare, nothing more than a 5-foot-10, 185-pound whip of a defensive back. But after sitting out his first season - no freshmen were allowed to play in those days - Loria made a name for himself and quickly earned the respect of his teammates as a safety.
Receivers and running backs who roamed across the middle in Loria’s territory risked peril. Those who stayed for any significant amount of time paid a handsome rent.
“He didn’t say much, but he played loud,” said current Tech head coach Frank Beamer, who played with Loria for two years in 1966 and 1967. “He stunned people when he hit ‘em. I mean, he just popped ‘em and it happened so quick.
“It was like karate, the way he hit people. He hit with such power for such a small guy. It always amazed me.”
Loria also made a name for himself as a punt returner. In his career, he returned four punts for touchdowns (a Tech career record), including three in 1966 - a single-season record recently tied by current receiver André Davis. Loria holds the school record for the longest punt return (95 yards versus Miami in 1967) and ranks second on the school’s all-time list with 813 punt return yards.
His senior season, he ranked eighth in the nation in punt returns and also intercepted three passes in earning All-America honors. Loria later had his jersey retired and was inducted posthumously in the Virginia Tech Hall of Fame and the College Football Hall of Fame.
“He was one of the quickest guys around, but he had a hard time going through the ropes [a football drill designed to improve footwork],” Beamer reminisced. “He couldn’t backpedal at all.
“You know, Coach Claiborne got the idea one day to play man coverage. But heck, none of us could backpedal. Frank couldn’t. I couldn’t. Ron [Davidson] couldn’t. We didn’t play man too long.
“But he was a good player and a good person. He was smart, had a real football sense about him. Now, he wasn’t much of a practice player. But on Saturday, he was full tilt.”
After graduating from college, Loria and wife Phyllis left for Huntington, W.Va., after Loria decided to get into coaching, taking a job as the offensive coordinator at Marshall under head coach Rick Tolley. Coincidentally, Tolley went to Tech too, playing as a linebacker under head coach Frank Moseley and lettering in 1960.
Tolley and his staff inherited a mess at Marshall. A couple of years earlier, some boosters - frustrated with a lack of success - tried some shady tactics to get the Thundering Herd ... well ... thundering again. Only the NCAA found little amusement in the tactics.
Marshall broke more than 140 rules and the end result of that was expulsion from the Mid-American Conference. The school also fired its head coach and forced the athletics director to resign.
So Tolley, Loria and the rest of the staff set about cleaning up the mess. The Thundering Herd won a few games that season before heading into the season finale - a road game at East Carolina which marked the only game the Herd was scheduled to fly to that season. Marshall suffered a heart-breaking 17-14 loss before boarding its charter back to Huntington.
Little did anyone know the heartbreak was just beginning.
On a cold, foggy, rainy November night, the pilots apparently struggled with visibility. The plane, loaded with 37 football players and five coaches - including Tolley and Loria - slammed into the aforementioned hill overlooking Huntington just a mile short of Tri-State Airport.
On Nov. 14, 1970, all 75 passengers were instantly killed in that crash. To this day, it marks the worst sport-related disaster in the history of this nation.
Later that night, a nation learned of the tragedy.
“I remember it to this day,” Beamer said. “I was sitting in the living room of Cheryl’s [now his wife] parents in Richmond and we were watching the 11 o’clock news.
“I’ll never forget it. I looked at Cheryl and told her, ‘ You know, Frank Loria coaches at Marshall.’ And then this sick feeling hit my stomach.”
In Barboursville, W.Va., just on the outskirts of Huntington, a pregnant Phyllis Loria and several family members sat in the living room waiting for her husband to return. Her two daughters were at church, so the family sat listening to the radio, simply enjoying the evening.
Then the news came over the radio. And then the calls from around the nation.
“I had a feeling,” she said after hearing the initial report. “I knew from the onset.”
Nearly eight months pregnant, she decided to go back to her home in western West Virginia with her parents. She sat in agony for four or five days waiting for the news she already knew in her heart.
It took several days for rescue personnel to find and identify the bodies. The terrible mass of shredded plane parts and bodies burned for most of that night despite the rain. As a result, none of the bodies were identified physically. Rescue personnel, townsfolk and volunteers used rings, necklaces and body parts to identify those in the tragedy.
Six of the bodies never were identified. Those six were buried in plots at the top of the hill in a place called Spring Hill Cemetery. A blank slab of concrete marks each grave and one gravestone lists the six names.
After about a week, Phyllis Loria learned of her husband’s fate. And a few days after that, she and her family, along with tons of friends and teammates from both Marshall and Virginia Tech, put to rest Frank Loria’s remains. He had died at the young age of 23.
“That week was tough,” she said. “But my family kept me going. People were bringing in food and looking out for the girls because they were too young to understand.
“But I knew I had to move on. I was seven-and-a-half months pregnant and I had two girls to look after. Through the will of God, I re-thought my life and did what I thought Frank would have wanted me to do with the children.”
Beamer was one of the ones to go to the funeral. After that, he and Claiborne and several others helped raised money from folks in Blacksburg and sent it to Phyllis Loria to help her raise her family.
“That community did so much for us,” she said. “I’ll never forget that.”
For the past 30 years, the administration at Marshall and the fine, blue-collar people of Huntington have done all they can to remember those who died on that tragic night. The most recent function occurred on Nov. 11 right before Marshall took to the field against Miami of Ohio. The school unveiled a beautiful Memorial Bronze - a huge piece of bronze at the entrance of James F. Edwards Field, with names of all 75 persons who died in the plane crash and the words “We are ... Marshall” etched on it.
The 30th anniversary of the horrible event and the unveiling of the Memorial Bronze drew tons of people to Huntington. The group included Phyllis Riccelli, the widow of Frank Loria, who is now married to Rick Riccelli and lives in Ashburn, Va.
For the first time in 30 years, she made the trip back to Huntington, W.Va.
“I went back for my son,” she said, referring to Frank Jr. “I wanted him to see where his dad coached. Frankie had heard a lot about his dad, but I thought it was important for him to know who his dad was as a man and going back there was like an awakening.
“I don’t know why we waited this long to go back. Maybe I couldn’t explain to my kids why it hurt so much. I knew if we went back, there would be a lot of mourning. I wasn’t sure they could handle it and I didn’t want them to think of their father in that light. I wanted them to remember his accomplishments more so than how he died.
“But it was time. It was time to go back. We always celebrated his life. He accomplished so much more than many of those in his lifetime. And this was a way for the kids, particularly Frankie, to learn more about him.”
Loria, Jr. and sisters Vickie and Julie were three of 70 children left without one of their parents. Eighteen children were left without both parents.
The younger Loria had learned a lot about his father from his mother and from Loria’s former teammates. Today, he lives in New Jersey as a sales rep for a communications company and often hears tales from guys like Lenny Luongo and Ron Davidson, two former Tech players who played with Loria.
But the trip to Huntington taught him more about his father and about life in general. While there, he got to meet a woman who was a month old at the time of the crash that took her father’s life. Coincidentally, she was born a month early, and needless to say, the two of them instantly bonded.
“There was a connection there,” Loria, Jr. said. “We understood each other, and even though we never knew our dad’s, it was nice to be able to honor them.
“I think about him a lot, especially now with Virginia Tech’s success. I believe my dad would have been an excellent coach and I often wonder where he’d be now? How would things be different?”
“I’ve often said this and I said it in my book [Turn Up The Wick], but I’d probably be coaching for him,” Beamer said. “It’s just a shame that such a smart, talented guy had his life end so early. He had a bright future in coaching. I could see him becoming a great head coach.”
The younger Loria, a 1993 graduate of West Point (Army), and one of his sisters also went back to Huntington on Nov. 14, the exact date of the anniversary of the crash. Each year, on Nov. 14, the football team - along with people from the community, the state and the nation - gather on the Marshall campus for a special ceremony. On this date, wreaths are placed at the foot of the school’s memorial fountain and officials from the school shut off the fountain until next spring. The wreaths later end up at the memorial in Spring Hill Cemetery.
“I had never really thought about going to Huntington, but this year, I wanted to go,” Loria, Jr. said. “I guess I’m at a different stage in my life now. I wasn’t sure how it would be, but it wasn’t sad and that’s good.
“I’m really thankful for the way everything has been remembered and I hope it’s not forgotten. It’s a story about hope and courage and how a community came together. They could have forgotten everything over time, but they haven’t because it’s a big part of who they are and I’m thankful for that.”
Three decades later, it seems like everything has come full circle for all those affected by the events of 30 years ago. That seemed no more evident than when Loria, Jr. ran into Mary Jane Tolley, the widow of Rick Tolley, while in Huntington.
“I just wanted to hug her,” he said. “I asked her how she was doing and she asked about my mom. She seems like a very special person.”
Several attempts were made to get in touch with members of the Tolley family for this story. But those attempts proved unsuccessful.
Yet no one has forgotten these two men and the sacrifice each made. In the case of Loria, Virginia Tech retired his jersey, inducted him into the school’s hall of fame and named a prestigious award after him. Each year, the Frank Loria Award, presented by Omicron Delta Kappa, goes to the student-athlete who exemplifies the best in scholarship athletics.
“Virginia Tech has gone above and beyond the call of duty,” Phyllis Riccelli said. “No question. And we’re very appreciative.”
But the sacrifices of these two Tech graduates, along with the 73 others, mean more to the town of Huntington and Marshall University than to anyone else. Those 75 green flags that waft in the breeze in a line from the bluff where the crash occurred to downtown represent more than just the deaths of 75 people.
They signify the rise of a football program that won more games in the 1990s than anyone, a program that won three Motor City Bowls and now thrives in the MAC - a conference that booted them more than 30 years ago.
Marshall University has arisen. The phrase “Ashes to Glory” rings true in Huntington, and as a result, those 75 flags represent life more than anything else.
“I’ll definitely go back there again,” Loria, Jr. said. “Especially now after meeting some of the people I met.
“It’s about meeting friends and making new friendships. To me, it’s not the end. It’s just the beginning.”
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