Sheriff Confirms 7 Dead After Bloomington Plane Crash, Including 2 On ISU Athletic Staff

McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage joined by Coroner Kathleen Davis as he reads a statement to reporters Tuesday.

McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage joined by Coroner Kathleen Davis as he reads a statement to reporters Tuesday.

(Willis Kern/WGLT)

A county sheriff is confirming that seven people have died in a small plane crash near Bloomington while returning home from the NCAA basketball tournament in Indianapolis.  McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage says the county coroner pronounced all seven occupants dead.

In an update late Tuesday, a National Transportation Safety Board investigator says the private plane that was trying to land at Central Illinois Regional Airport turned away from the runway before crashing.

Investigator Todd Fox said Tuesday it wasn't clear why the aircraft made that maneuver. He adds the NTSB investigation into the crash may take a year to 18 months.

Fox says the pilot, 51-year-old Thomas Hileman, had flown about 12,000 hours and held an air transport pilot's license.  An ATP license allows a pilot to fly commercial airliners.

The Bloomington Pantagraph reported late Tuesday that all seven victims died on impact.  McLean County Coroner Kathleen Davis identifies the others killed as: 37-year old Aaron Leetch of Normal, 40-year old Andrew Butler of Normal, 36-year old Torrey Ward of Normal, 45-year old Jason Jones off Bloomington, 64-year old Terry Stralow of Bloomington, and 42-year old Scott Bittner of Towanda. Coroner Davis says four of the men had to be identified through dental records because of the force of the impact.

Sandage says air traffic controllers in Peoria lost radar contact with the private plane around 12:15 AM. About three hours later, a Bloomington police officer discovered the wreckage just north of Route 9 east of the city. Sandage says rescue workers feared all were dead.

"At approximately 4:15 this morning, McLean County coroner's office personnel arrived and pronounced all seven occupants of the plane deceased," he said.

In a message on Illinois State University's website, President Larry Dietz said the school's community is deeply saddened by the loss of two members of its Athletics department staff, Torrey Ward, associate head coach of the men's basketball team, and Aaron Leetch, deputy director of Athletics for external operations.

"Words cannot fully express the grief that is felt in the wake of such a tragedy," Dietz said.  "We move between shock and profound sadness. At times like these we may even question our deeply held beliefs and wonder what the future will hold."

There was heavy fog when the crash occurred but authorities refused to discuss a possible cause.

Central Illinois Regional Airport Director Carl Olson says Peoria airport officials were in charge of traffic control when the plane apparently went down sometime after midnight.

"The pilot did not cancel his flight plan or close his flight plan upon arrival, which is when Peoria approach contacted the airport authority for assistance," he said.

The Federal Aviation Administration says the Cessna 414 took off from Indianapolis and crashed just short of the Bloomington airport after midnight Tuesday.

Bittner was the owner of a meat processing company in Towanda and the owner of the twin-engine Cessna plane.  Stralow was a partner in a popular bar in Bloomington-Normal.

In a press release, Central Illinois Regional Airport said Peoria air traffic control notified the local airport authority at 12:15 a.m. of a plane that failed to complete its flight plan.  The Airport Authority, Bloomington Police and Fire, Normal Police, and the McLean County Sheriff's Department began searching the surrounding area and discovered the crashed aircraft in a farm field about one mile east and north of the airport, between 3:00 and 3:30 a.m.

A family friend who answered a phone listing for Scott Bittner refused to comment beyond asking for privacy.

Story source: AP