A plane crash which occurred early in the morning on Tuesday has taken the lives of seven people. Among those killed were associate head coach at Illinois State University, Torrey Ward, and Aaron Leetch, deputy athletic director. The plane went down in Bloomington, Ill., near the Central Illinois Regional Airport. The Cessna 414 had come within 2 1/2 miles of the airport when it crashed into a soybean field. The coach and deputy AD were returning to Bloomington from a trip to Indianapolis to watch the NCAA basketball tournament.
Larry Dietz, president of ISU, confirmed that the two were on board when the plane crashed in Bloomington just after midnight. In an email to faculty, staff and students, Dietz announced the deaths of Ward and Leetch, saying “words cannot fully express the grief that is felt.”
Bill Tate, sergeant of the McLean County Sheriff’s Office, spoke to ESPN.com, saying that the plane’s wreckage had been discovered in Bloomington at approximately 3:15 a.m. The coroner for McLean County, Kathleen Davis, said that all of the victims of the crash were found buckled into their seats and were dead when officials arrived on the scene. All seven apparently were killed by blunt force trauma caused by the impact.
Todd Fox, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), confirmed that a private plane trying to land at the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington had been returning from the Final Four, but steered away from the runway prior to crashing. On Monday night, Ward had tweeted that he had traveled via a private plane to the Final Four in Indianapolis.
On Tuesday, Fox said that why the plane had steered away before landing in Bloomington was not clear, and that the investigation may take anywhere between one year and 18 months. It is known that shortly before the crash, the plane disappeared from radar. After the flight plan was not closed out by the pilot, a search for the plane began. The search went on for three hours before the crash site was found. Photos of the scene show the area shrouded in dense fog.
Also killed in the crash was the 42-year-old son of the private plane’s owner, Scott Bittner, who owned his own business, and his 64-year-old friend, Terry Stralow, who owned a sports bar. It appears as though all of the men killed were known to each other. Former two-sport athlete for Illinois Wesleyan University, 45-year-old Jason Jones, was also killed in the crash. The other victim was identified by the coroner’s office as 40-year-old Sprint employee Andrew Butler.
According to Fox, pilot Thomas Hileman, 51, was licensed as an air transport pilot and had amassed approximately 12,000 flight hours. A pilot who holds an ATP license is allowed to fly commercial airliners.
ISU center, sophomore Reggie Lynch, said that the players had been told about the death of Ward by Muller during a team meeting at 8:00 a.m. A priest had also been called and was there to counsel and offer support to the team.
Dan Muller, head coach at ISU, wrote in a statement that it “is devastating” to lose a large number of friends “much too early.” He expressed his sympathy and sent his prayers to the friends and family of those killed. Of Leetch, Muller wrote that he was a “friend, colleague and mentor,” and added that he would miss him very much. Calling Ward his “dear friend,” Muller said, “I love you so much.” He added that “I will miss [Ward] every day.”
Lynch said that Ward was divorced and had two children, Tamia and Torrey, and a fiancée. After playing at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, he traveled overseas to play basketball professionally. He was appointed associate head coach prior to the 2014-15 season.
Speaking to ESPN.com, Lynch said, “We’re all just done,” calling Ward his “main man.” Muller also asked for privacy for the ISU basketball program as they mourn the seven killed in the Bloomington plane crash, and vowed that the program “will stick together” while dealing with the loss of their associate head coach and deputy AD.
By Jennifer Pfalz