Friends Honor Bloomington Plane Crash Victims: ‘It’s Hard To Imagine’

CHICAGO (CBS) — A day after losing seven members of the Illinois State University community in a plane crash – including two members of the athletic department – emotional friends of the victims shared memories of the lost.

Seven men were killed early Tuesday, when a small plane crashed amid heavy fog just short of the Central Illinois Regional Airport in Bloomington, as they were flying home from the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship in Indianapolis.

“Yesterday was the hardest day of my life. I lost a lot of good friends,” ISU head basketball coach Dan Muller said.

Friends and co-workers of those who died said there is no playbook to handle such a tragedy, as they took time to honor the seven people lost in the crash, each of them described as a supporter and fan of Illinois State University.

“There’s a large void in our community, and our Redbird family,” said athletic director Larry Lyons, who repeatedly wiped away tears as he remembered the victims. “Bloomington-Normal is a small town, and in many respects, everybody is touched by this tragedy, and they will all be missed.”

The passengers included ISU associate head basketball coach Torrey Ward, who was described as instrumental in the Redbirds’ success and recruiting; and ISU deputy director of athletics for external operations Aaron Leetch, called a man of high integrity.

The other five victims – 51-year-old Thomas Hileman, who was the pilot; 42-year-old Scott Bittner, who owned the plane; 64-year-old Terry Stralow, co-owner of a popular bar in Normal; 45-year-old Woodrow “Jason” Jones, an investment officer from Bloomington; and 40-year-old Andrew Butler, a regional representative for Sprint – have been described as important members of the ISU community and passionate members of the Redbird fan base.

Muller said he met Butler and Stralow about 20 years ago.

“They’re such good people; and, to their families, words of course don’t express. It’s hard to imagine,” he said.

Muller said he was offered the chance to go on the trip, but couldn’t because he had a meeting and other responsibilities to attend to.

According to the McLean County Coroner’s office, all seven men were strapped in their seats inside the Cessna 414, and they all likely died on impact when the plane went down.

ISU fans were being encouraged to leave cards and other tokens of remembrance near Redbird Arena, where a memorial was held Wednesday evening.

“How many times have we gathered in this arena to lead our Redbirds to victory?” said ISU President Larry Dietz. “Tonight our heads are bowed as we mourn the untimely passing of two amazing Redbirds – Aaron and Torrey.”

Jack Curinn, known as Jumbo, was a super booster who died of cancer not long ago. Lyons said, “Jumbo was standing at the gates with open arms waiting….waiting to comfort them… a Redbird tailgate heaven just went to a whole different level.”

NTSB air safety investigator Todd Fox says it appears the pilot was lined up to land at the airport in Bloomington, but pulled the plane back up as he got closer to the runway.

“Variety of reasons why an airplane would not execute the full instrument approach,” Fox said. “It could be weather…the pilot could elect to do a missed approach at any point during the approach.”

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