A Huntington writer remembers her fallen
By Ginevra Ginn Tidman
It was a nightmare no one could have dreamed. Thirty-six years ago, on the night of Nov. 14, 1970, the air was cold and grey. Visibility was near zero when a chartered DC-9 jetliner crashed before reaching Tri-State Airport in Kenova. The plane carried 37 members of Marshall University’s football team, 12 staff members, five crew members and 21 alumni and friends. All aboard were killed. The crash leveled an area 200 feet in diameter. The only recognizable objects at the site were the plane’s two jet engines and sections of the wings and fuselage.
Huntington’s Cabell Huntington Hospital, the facility nearest the disaster, sealed off its entrances as it geared up for emergency services that, as it turned out, were never required. In front of the airport a chartered bus, striped in the bright green and white of Marshall’s colors, stood empty and still in the wet night.
The football team had lost a heartbreaking game 17-14 to East Carolina University in Greenville, N.C., that Saturday afternoon; and, all 75 people aboard the plane lost their lives that evening.
My husband and I were watching “Mission Impossible” on television when we first heard the station interruption announcing that a plane had crashed as it approached the airport.
My husband said, “Oh, my God, could it be the one the Heaths are on?”
Elaine and Emmett Heath were our neighbors. Our association with them was through their daughter Kathy – one of their four children. She had been the best friend of our daughter for nine years, ever since the third grade.
The Heaths had lived in Huntington for 12 years. Emmett owned a muffler outlet and was a sales representative for a women’s sportswear company. Elaine ran the house and looked after their four children. She was a small woman, barely 5 feet, 2 inches, if she stretched. Her eyes were green, hair dark, her face vivacious. She was far from looking her 43 years.
Emmett, a man six feet tall, weighing about 200 pounds, was also 43 years old. He had intense blue eyes and a prodigious sense of humor. His gift of laughter served him well because the Heath home was one of incessant activity with family and friends coming and going at all hours.
Emmett was called “Happy” by his friends. As a matter of fact, the family was known as the “Happy Heaths.”
The Heaths added a spacious room on the back of the house to help contain the family activities. A shingle over the door leading from the outside into this room read “Heath’s Inn.” It might appropriately have read “Heaths In” because someone was always there.
The big brick house swarmed with young people, our own daughter among them. One day I phoned her and Happy answered. “Let me look,” he said, adding, “if she’s not here, she’s the only one who isn’t.”
At the time of the crash, young Jeff Heath was 19 and a student at Marshall; Kathy Watrous, our daughter’s friend was 18, married, and the mother of a little girl just three weeks old; Holly Heath was 15 and in high school; Kevin Heath was just 11 and in elementary school.
On Saturday morning the week before the crash, Elaine came running up our driveway. “Come on over and see my grandbaby,” she said. “I’m taking care of Kathy’s baby, and I want you to see her.” Elaine knew how much we loved Kathy; my daughter and I had given a baby shower for her.
We admired the baby lying in her bassinet, and told 15-year-old Holly what a young-looking aunt she was. While we were there, Happy arrived waving two narrow strips of card-board in his hand. “I got them,” he proclaimed. “I got tickets to the Marshall-East Carolina game.” The Heaths, although not Marshall University graduates, were zealous and indefatigable supporters of their adopted hometown team.
When do you leave?” my husband asked. “And it’s none of my business, but what’s the price?”
“The plane leaves Huntington Airport at 7:30 next Friday evening,” Happy told him. ‘That’s Friday the 13th, but we’re not superstitious, are we, Elaine? The tickets are $50 per person – that covers the plane fare, one meal, your lodging and a ticket to the game.”
When we heard the first television announcement of the disaster the following Saturday evening, we knew what had happened. We ran to the front of our home from which we could see the Heath house. One look confirmed our fears. Every light in the house from the basement to attic blazed into the murky night. The house resembled a ship alight, plowing through a dark night ocean. The lights shimmered in the falling rain. I looked at my husband. “Oh, Bill,” was all I could say.
We went back to the television to listen in horror as the news unfolded. I remember lighting two hurricane candles on the windowsills in the television room. I don’t know why. To be doing something, I guess. Their flames blurred through the tears in my eyes.
Many stories have evolved from that night. My story is just one of them. It has confirmed for me that while there are tangible needs of the body, there also are mysterious needs of the spirit, which are often met in strange, little-dreamed-of ways.
What to do for these four young folks? My first thought was food, because I knew there would be flowers by the garden full, and young people are always hungry. So I cooked a ham and prepared baked beans in a fat crock. Perhaps they would serve as mute evidence for the feelings I could not express.
Then I remembered. I could give them the gift of words.
Somewhere I had read a poem about a husband and wife who had died together. I couldn’t remember the poet’s name, nor the first line of the poem. But I knew the poem contained words the young Heath family should read now.
“What are you hunting?” my husband asked as I
rummaged through our books, which were scattered all over the house.
It took two trips to the public library before I finally found it in Herbert R. Mayes’ “An Editor’s Treasury, Volume II.” The poem is titled, “An Epitaph upon Husband and Wife, Which Died and Were Buried Together,” and was written by Richard Crashaw, an Englishman who was born about 1613 and died in 1649.
Crashaw was a poet of intense feeling who delighted in expressing physical experience. I had found this beautiful poem, so appropriate, I thought, for Elaine and Happy. I hurried and sent a copy of it to Kathy to share with her sister and brothers.
To these, whom death again did wed,
The poet writes of “this stormy night,” such a night as the one in which Elaine and Happy died.
And the word “turtles” refers to turtledoves,
For many life halts with the enormity of such a plane crash,
and they are stunned with their mourning. But there comes a time when the
little tasks that consume time are upon us all again.
I had not seen their place of burial since the day of the funeral. There are two memorials to the plane crash: one a fountain on the Marshall University campus just outside the student activities building, the other at Spring Hill Cemetery.
The site at the cemetery is incredibly beautiful.
It rests, appropriately, atop a plateau overlooking the city. Tall trees make a circle of green around it in the summer lending privacy to grief; in autumn, the circle burns red and gold and russet; in winter, when the trees are bare, you can look out over the plateau and see Twin Towers at Marshall University lifting skyward.
The memorial itself is a slim, gray marble column topped with a simulated flame and, on the front, a wreath symbolizing the esteem in which the citizens of Huntington hold those who lost their lives. The names of the 75 persons aboard the plane are listed on the four sides of the column, and these words are engraved in the marble: “They shall live on in the hearts of their families and friends forever and this memorial records their loss to the University and to the community.” These same words appear on a bronze plaque at the campus site.
Small evergreens grace the short walkways that fan out from the memorial. The visitor who wishes to remember the passengers on the DC-9 can tarry on stone benches. The beauty of the memorial lies in its simplicity of design and natural setting.
As I stood alone the only sound I heard was the death rattle of the cold November wind in the few remaining leaves on the hillside trees. I thought to myself that after the enormous explosion of sound at the time of the crash, the only sounds must have been of the wind and the searing hiss of flames biting into the wreckage of the plane and the soft murmur of the rain. No voices of people preparing to leave the plane, trying to joke and be happy after losing a football game, thinking of who would meet the plane tonight, and of their tomorrows which were not to be. All those sounds, lost now, forever.
Only the eternal wind and rain, weeping softly for what was
Words excerpted from the poem I had mailed the young Heaths during those dark November days. I had reached out and touched Elaine and Emmett’s children. Young as they were, I had touched them. No one had told me. I was unprepared to see Crashaw’s words on the base of that tombstone. His words written in England back in the 1700s had bridged an ocean and almost four centuries to speak again from the tombstone of a husband and wife on the brow of a hillside in Huntington, W.Va.
Richard Crashaw’s words, as I read them again, had the ring of immortality, as words often do. I hoped they would serve as a requiem for the eight married couples who perished together on that West Virginia hillside.
by Kevin Heath
Where are the four Heath children 36 years later?
Jeff, at 55, is still the oldest and we remind him of it all the time.
He currently lives in Lexington, KY with his lovely wife Sally, an early education teacher, who was also a Marshall graduate. Jeff continues to work with CSX in the Coal Development Division. His oldest child Madison graduated from the University of Kentucky and was married this past summer in Lexington where she resides and works for the Marriott Corp. at Griffin Gate as a convention-planning specialist. Her husband is Daniel Carry, also a UK graduate who is assisting his family in their bid to continue serving their community in the Kentucky political arena. Jeff’s son Taylor is a sophomore at the University of Kentucky and a member of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon Fraternity. Everyone in their family is doing great.
Kathy Heath Watrous hates to be reminded that she is 54, but we have learned not to mention it much in her presence. Kathy has continued her great work at Cabell Huntington Hospital in many different capacities over the years, but has always been involved with the obstetrics clinic with post and prenatal care. Kathy’s oldest daughter Shannon has moved back from North Carolina to Huntington with her young daughter Sara. Shannon is a Middle School teacher at Beverly Hills. Kathy’s youngest daughter Heather graduated from WVU and married her high school sweetheart, Jeff Parker. Jeff graduated from WVU and then received his medical degree from WVU. He is currently serving in the military as a surgeon, most recently in Iraq. They are planning to move back in 2007 to Huntington where Jeff has accepted a position with Huntington Internal Medicine Group. They have three wonderful young boys Bryson, Jackson and Colson. Everyone is doing well.
Holly Heath Wild, 51 is still married to her high school sweetheart and our favorite dentist, Marc Wild. They still live in the much-updated old Heath homestead, where they raised their three fantastic children and continue to be active in the community volunteering their time. Griffin is a senior at Marshall University studying nutrition; Bethany is a senior at the University of Tennessee studying urban planning; and Tanner is a sophomore business student and member of the University of Tennessee “Volunteer” basketball team. Marc and Holly travel during basketball season as much as possible to see Tanner represent the family whenever possible. Everyone is happy and healthy.
Kevin, 47, stills considers himself a young man, but no one else does. Kevin, who attended Marshall University and graduated from Central Florida, sells insurance at Main Street Insurance in downtown Huntington. He and his high school sweetheart and love of his life, Jill, a homemaker, have two semi-grown up daughters. Katie, the oldest, has just entered her freshman year at the University of Kentucky and is an active member of the Kappa Delta Sorority enjoying her first year being away from home. Our youngest child was not yet born upon the first installment of this epilogue – our daughter Molly was brought into this world on the 20th anniversary of that fateful night. She has become our family’s beacon of light and reason to celebrate the November 14th with fonder memories. She is a sophomore at Huntington High School and has just received her driving license and will most likely be seen less around the house this fall. She is the last of this Heath tribe who, as you can see, all appear to be doing just fine and are grateful to everyone who helped us along the way.
Who says Huntington is not a great town in which to live? Take a lesson from the Heaths, “orphans of the storm,” who found their haven in Huntington.
© 1999-2007 Huntington Quarterly Magazine