BLOOMINGTON, Ill. (AP) — As family, friends and colleagues mourned the loss of the seven victims of a small plane crash in central Illinois, authorities were investigating but had no immediate word on the cause.
The aircraft was returning from the NCAA basketball tournament in Indianapolis when it crashed in a field near Bloomington early Tuesday, killing all on board, including Illinois State University's associate head basketball coach and a deputy athletics director.
"The Redbird family and the Bloomington-Normal community has suffered a terrible loss today," Illinois State athletics director Larry Lyons said of the deaths of his deputy, Aaron Leetch, and associate coach Torrey Ward.
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 journey to Monday night's championship game began with a phone conversation. Scott Bittner, a 42-year-old business owner, got a call from sports bar owner Terry Stralow, 64, asking if he wanted to go to the game.
"He said he had an extra ticket and asked him to go," said Terry Wertz, who worked alongside Bittner at a meat processing plant. Wertz said that when Bittner hung up the phone he was "really excited."
They took off for the game in a plane that Bittner used regularly for business trips, owned by his father. It was not clear exactly how they were connected with the others on board, but local broadcasters talked about the group as if many of them were well acquainted with one another.
Bittner and Stralow were two of the seven killed.
Illinois State University President Larry Dietz confirmed in an email to students, faculty and staff that Ward, 36, and Leetch, 37, also 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."
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.
There was no immediate word on the cause of the crash, and the National Transportation Safety Board said its full investigation was expected to take a year to 18 months.
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.
News photos from near the scene showed dense fog. NTSB investigator Todd Fox said the plane was cleared to land in fog and rain but appears to have made a turn away from approaching the runway before crashing. It isn't clear why, he said.
Fox said he didn't know if the plane was having problems or if the pilot radioed in distress. The plane's engines caught fire on impact, Fox said.
The pilot had flown about 12,000 hours and held an air transport license, which allows a pilot to fly commercial airliners, Fox said.
The other victims included Jason Jones, 45, a former basketball and baseball player for Illinois Wesleyan University who worked at Wells Fargo Advisors.
"He loved his children and his family more than anything in the world, wonderful man. That's really all I can say right now," said his wife, Lyndsey Jones.
The McLean County coroner's office identified the other victims as Stralow, pilot Thomas Hileman, 51, and Andrew Butler, 40, an employee of Sprint.
Bittner lived with his wife and two children in Towanda, a small village just outside Bloomington, his co-worker Wertz told The Associated Press. He owned a meat processing plant in Eureka, Illinois, carrying on the family's line of work after his dad established another plant in the small city of Chenoa, where Bittner grew up.
"He always told me that he wasn't my boss, that I didn't work for him, I worked with him," said Wertz, who has worked at Bittner's Meat Co. for 15 years.
"If I needed anything, he'd do anything for you," Wertz said through tears.
The aircraft was registered to Make it Happen Aviation LLC of Towanda, Illinois.