Basketball crew fate ended in a plane

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A private plane returning from the NCAA basketball tournament in Indianapolis crashed in a central Illinois field, killing all seven people on board, including Illinois State University’s associate head basketball coach and a deputy athletics director.

Rescue personnel found no survivors at the site near the city of Bloomington, and a coroner pronounced the seven occupants dead, McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage said.

The plane went down in a soybean field 2.5 miles from the Bloomington airport. All the victims, who were found strapped in their seats, died from blunt force trauma resulting from the crash, said Coroner Kathleen Davis.

Illinois State University President Larry Dietz confirmed in an email to students, faculty and staff that associate head basketball coach Torrey Ward, 36, and Aaron Leetch, 37, the athletic department’s deputy director for external relations, were killed in the early-morning crash.

“Words cannot fully express the grief that is felt in the wake of such a tragedy,” Dietz wrote, adding that both men were well-respected and much-loved in the athletics department. “We move between shock and profound sadness.”

Several players and staff carried through with an optional practice yesterday afternoon at Redbird Arena. A spokesman said they would not make players or coaches available for comment.

The Cessna 414 twin-engine aircraft took off from Indianapolis and crashed just short of the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington after midnight, the Federal Aviation Administration said.

The National Transportation Safety Board was investigating, but there was no initial word on the cause of the crash. News photos from near the scene showed dense fog.

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.

The other victims included Scott Bittner, a 42-year-old business owner whose father owned the plane; Terry Stralow, 64, a sports bar owner; pilot Thomas Hileman, 51; and Andrew Butler, 40, an employee of Sprint, authorities said.

Jason Jones, 45, a former basketball and baseball player for Illinois Wesleyan University who worked at Wells Fargo Advisors, also died, said his wife, Lyndsey Jones.

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