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Loria family recalls frantic night

by Anthony Hanshew

SPORTS EDITOR

Thirty years ago to this day, families from Alabama to New Jersey were thrown into a maddening chaos.

Three nights ago, the relatives and friends of the 75 persons lost celebrated the life of those aboard the doomed 1970 Marshall University football plane crash.

During that span, literally thousands have tried to recover from the most catastrophic sports tragedy in American history.

Among those stories too numerous to count include the relatives of Frank Loria, the former Notre Dame High School standout who was a Thundering Herd assistant coach at the time of the crash. At least two family members had plans to join Loria on that tragic flight.

Loria's wife, Phyllis, would have been by her husband's side. Being seven month's pregnant with their third child (Frank Loria Jr.), however, made it an impossibility.

"The only reason I wasn't on that plane is because I was seven months pregnant with Franky," she said. "You think about all that. Why, why why? You're always asking questions."

Dave Romano, a cousin of Loria, was on the team but also didn't make the flight. Following the tragedy, he transferred to West Virginia University and had not returned to Huntington until he attended Saturday night's unveiling of a memorial statue prior to Marshall's win over Miami.

"Things like (the crash) are numbing," Romano said. "Being in school with a high number I didn't get drafted (into the Vietnam War). Now I knew how that felt. ... You can't change the past, but you can at least remember and learn from it. What I did was put it out of my mind and go forward.

"That's probably why I didn't go back down there."

Instead of traveling with the team for the East Carolina game, Phyllis was in Huntington on Nov. 14, 1970. What she had missed was supposed to be an event for the Marshall community.

Traveling by air was rare, but Thundering Herd supporters helped cover the costs as a thank you to an improving program.

"It was supposed to be a celebration," Phyllis said. "They finally had enough money to fly."

Word of a plane crash near Tri-State Airport broke late that Saturday evening. Confusion reigned in Huntington.

"In Huntington everything was up in the air," Phyllis said. "Nothing was confirmed. There was a lot they kept from me, and now I know it was because I was pregnant."

More than 270 miles away, Frank Loria's mother, Erma, was babysitting her grandchildren in Pittsburgh. When television stations began reporting that Marshall's plane had gone down, family members rushed to her side.

Erma's husband, John, Gino Columbo and John Babyak, who had married Frank's cousin, Chris, raced to Pittsburgh from Clarksburg.

"When we got there, there were some neighbors trying to console her, because there she was by herself in a strange town watching it on TV," Babyak said.

Thirty years later, Frank Loria Jr. reflects on how his mother dealt with that frantic night and the years beyond.

"She's totally great," Frank Jr. said. "I always think about her and what she went through -- 22 with two little girls and pregnant with me. I never heard her complain. I know she cried, but she never showed it. She wasn't hiding it. She was proud to be Frank Loria's wife."

Romano also has gained perspective. Seeing many friends and former teammates Saturday night delivered quite a message.

"It really didn't hit home until this weekend," Romano said. "There have been other plane crashes and of course during war times large numbers are killed, but I can't think of any situation where everyone from the same community was killed.

"It was wiped out. I've heard people say it put a deep scar on the community. Now I understand that. Being a father of four children, it's hard to imagine how it would be if I left with my wife and didn't come back."

Sports editor Anthony Hanshew can be reached at 626-1444 or by e-mail at ahanshew@exponent-telegram.com.

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