Officials: 7 Dead in Bloomington Plane Crash

Passengers were reportedly returning from the NCAA game in Indianapolis

Seven people were killed Tuesday morning when a small plane crashed near the Central Illinois Regional Airport, according to McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage. 

A Federal Aviation Administration official said the Cessna 414 took off from Indianapolis and crashed just short of the Bloomington airport. 

Officials from the McLean County Coroner's Office were called to the scene and all seven people who were on the plane, which was registered to Make It Happen Aviation in Towanda, Illinois, were pronounced dead, Sandage said. 

The father-in-law of one of those on board told the Chicago Tribune that the people on the plane were returning from the NCAA basketball championship in Indianapolis.

Illinois State University President Larry Dietz said in a message to students and staff at the school that two members of the Athletics department staff were killed in the crash, including Deputy Director of Athletics for external operations Aaron Leetch and Associate Head Coach of the Redbirds men's basketball team Torrey Ward.

"Both men were well-respected and much-loved colleagues in our Athletics department," Dietz said in a statement. "I join with the Redbird Athletics family and the entire campus in mourning the loss of these two men and the others aboard. Our thoughts and prayers are with their families."

Leetch, 37, is survived by his wife and two daughters and Ward, 36, is survived by his two children, Dietz said. 

"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."

A tweet from an unverified Twitter account claiming to be Ward showed photos of the plane and the Lucas Oil Stadium just hours before the crash.

Other victims killed in the crash were 42-year-old Scott Bittner, who owns Bittner's Meat Co - Eureka Locker, 64-year-old Terry Stralow, co-owner of the popular bar Pub II in Normal, 45-year-old Woodrow Jason Jones of Bloomington, 40-year-old Andrew Butler of Normal, and 51-year-old Thomas Hileman who was the pilot of the plane, McLean County Coroner Kathleen Davis said Tuesday. 

Davis said all seven victims were still belted in their seats when they were found with the plane. 

Autopsy results indicated all of the victims died of multiple blunt force trauma from the crash. Toxicology reports were pending. 

Visibility was hampered by dense fog in the area at the time of the crash, a National Weather Service official said, but officials could not say if it played a role in the crash. 

According to Todd Fox, an air safety investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board Chicago office, preliminary information indicates there was a low cloud ceiling, fog, mist and maybe light rain at the time of the crash.

The crash site was considered to be a "limited wreckage debris field," Fox said, noting that all parts of the aircraft were located at the scene. 

Fox said there was fire damage to the plane, but the fire occurred after the crash, according to preliminary information. 

Sandage said the plane had radar and radio contact with Peoria International Airport and the Bloomington-Normal Airport Authority shortly before the crash. 

"They had had radar and I believe radio contact with Peoria Airport," Sandage said. "That contact was lost."

It was not immediately clear if a distress call was made.

According to officials, citing a preliminary investigation, the pilot had an airline transport pilot certificate and had most recently reported having about 12,000 hours of flight time. 

Fox said an investigation into the weather, the air traffic control communications, the aircraft and other variables that may have contributed to the crash would be conducted. A preliminary report is expected next week. 

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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