NORMAL, Ill. — A news conference at Illinois State University to discuss the seven school officials and fans who died in a plane crash while returning from the NCAA Tournament became a tearful, moving memorial Wednesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash early Tuesday of the twin-engine Cessna 414 in a field just east of the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington. The agency planned an update on its progress Wednesday afternoon but said final word on the crash would not come for a year to 18 months.
Illinois State coach Dan Muller choked up as he tried to talk about two of those killed, 36-year-old associate head coach Torrey Ward and Aaron Leetch, the athletic department’s 37-year-old deputy director for external relations. The trip was a gathering of friends and one Muller could have easily have been part of if he didn’t need to stay on campus for work, he said.
“I was asked to go on the plane, yes,” said the coach, his eyes swollen and red.
Illinois State basketball player John Jones talked about Ward’s role as a take-charge father figure for a team that won 22 games and made the National Invitation Tournament, their first postseason appearance since 2012.
Jones said at halftime of one game in which Illinois State struggled, Ward took control of the locker room, a moment that helped spark the team to a better season.
“He sat us down and said, ‘This is not what we want to do, this is not the season we want to have,’” said Jones, who said he last talked to Ward Friday by text. “I wish I could see him again.”
Along with Ward and Leetch, killed in the crash were five other Bloomington-area men: the 51-year-old pilot, Thomas Hileman; 64-year-old Terry Stralow; 45-year-old Jason Jones; 42-year-old Scott Bittner; and 40-year-old Andrew Butler.
All seven victims, who were found strapped in their seats, died from blunt force trauma resulting from the crash, McLean County Coroner Kathleen Davis said.
The airport was open, and all systems, including its runway lighting, were functioning, though the tower had closed several hours earlier and handed responsibility to an air traffic control facility in Peoria. Radar contact was lost moments before the crash, and a search was launched when the pilot failed to close out his flight plan. It took about three hours to find the wreckage.
A prayer service was planned for early evening at Illinois State’s Redbird Arena, where the basketball team plays. Students and others were being encouraged to add to a memorial inside the arena.