Two members of Illinois State University's athletic department were among the seven people killed when their small plane crashed near the Bloomington airport while returning from the NCAA basketball championship game in Indianapolis, authorities said.
They were identified as Aaron Leetch, deputy director of athletics for external operations, and Torrey Ward, associate head coach of the Redbirds men’s basketball team.
"The entire campus (is) in mourning," ISU president Larry Dietz said in a statement.
Two other victims have been identified: Terry Stralow, a partner in a popular bar in Bloomington-Normal, and Scott Bittner, the owner of a meat-processing company and the owner of the twin-engine Cessna 414 that crashed.
No information about the others killed was available, but authorities said everyone on board died in the crash.
The plane left the Indianapolis airport around 11 p.m. local time Monday and hit heavy fog over central Illinois, authorities said. Around 12:15 a.m., radar contact with the plane was lost, according to the sheriff's office.
A search was launched and a Bloomington police officer discovered the wreckage in a field northwest of the airport, the office said. "It was determined that there were no survivors," it said in a statement.
The plane had been in contact with air traffic control in Peoria, which handles communication with airplanes after the Central Illinois Airport radio tower closes at 10 p.m., said Carl Olson, director of the airport.
At some point "that radio contact was lost." Olson did not say if the pilot indicated experiencing any trouble. The airport control tower normally closes at night, but it is common for planes to land after that hour, with runway lights illuminated. Pilots also have the ability to remotely indicate they need the runway lights turned on.
The pilot did not cancel the flight plan or make any alterations in flight, Olson said. The cause of the crash is under investigation by NTSB and FAA.
Scott Barrows, the father-in-law of Bittner, said his son-in-law and others had flown to Indianapolis for the NCAA championship.
"(They) went to the NCAA game last night, and they were flying back, and I guess the weather was bad in central Illinois. It was foggy," said Barrows.
"They were supposed to land around midnight. My daughter was called at 4 a.m. There was no contact," he said. "It has been confirmed they are dead."
Barrows said his son-in-law owned the plane but had a regular pilot. "They had a pilot, he was very experienced," he said.
Bittner had gotten a call Monday morning from Stralow, owner of the Pub II, about going to the game, according to a worker at Bittner's company.
"He called and said, 'You want to go? I got an extra ticket,'' " said Terry Wertz, who has worked at Bittner's Lockers for 16 years. "I asked him, 'Are you going?' and he said, 'Yea, I'm going. I might not ever go again.'
"He was a great guy, do anything for you," Wertz said. "Great to work for. He always told me, 'You don't work for me, you work with me.' He's always been good to me, a heart of gold. All he's done for me.
"Where they crashed was near the airport," he said. "They were almost home."
Bittner, 42, had two children, a boy and a girl ages 10 and 12. He owned a meat processing company in downstate Eureka, according to his father-in-law.
Bittner grew up in Chenoa and met his wife, Carrie, at Illinois State University in Bloomington-Normal. They married after she graduated.
"She's in shock, obviously," said Barrows, who was a clinical assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago Medical Center and currently lives in Virginia.
"It's going to be tough, but we'll be there for them," he said. "I'll be there for our grandchildren."
John Rokos, a co-owner of the Pub II, said he got a call around 9 a.m. telling him that his partner was killed in the crash.
"He was like my little brother," Rokos said. "I'm in shock ... This is a tragedy. It's just a terrible loss. It's shocking."
He said Stralow, whom he had known since college, went "to a lot of basketball, football games when he can. Especially around the championships."
Rokos said he had last talked with Stralow last week, mostly about business and their families.
"He was my working partner," Rokos said. "He was a tremendous man, very generous to his friends... He was a great businessman. Tremendous."
At ISU, Athletics Director Larry Lyons said the "Redbird family and the Bloomington-Normal community has suffered a terrible loss today.
"Aaron Leetch was a shining star in this business. He had a gift in dealing with people and building relationships. Our external units were making incredible progress under his leadership, and he was on that trip doing what he does best.
"Torrey Ward was a big part of the success taking place with our men’s basketball program. He had a big personality, was a talented coach and recruiter, and our fans loved him.
"There is no play in the playbook for times like these," he said. "We will miss Aaron and Torrey deeply, and we will support their families in any way that we can. To honor their individual and collective legacies, we will move the Redbirds and our community forward.”
Leetch leaves behind his wife, Lindsay, and daughters Avery and Emmersen. Ward is survived by his children Torrey and Tamia.