The Healing Begins at Oklahoma State


They buried their dead. They cannot bury their grief. They might never.

Monday, the healing began for Oklahoma State University in the wake of the Jan. 27 airplane crash that claimed the lives of 10 people connected with the school’s basketball program. Oklahoma State’s men’s team played its first game since the tragedy, beating Missouri, 69-66, before an emotional, boisterous capacity crowd at Gallagher-Iba Arena.

The result didn’t matter. What mattered was filling Gallagher-Iba Arena with cheers instead of eulogies.


The signs of tragedy have enveloped the residents of this small town that brags about having Oklahoma State University as its heart.


Orange and black, the school colors, hang all over, same as the pain. Orange and black ribbons flap in the prairie wind throughout town. Orange and black bows adorn light poles. Orange and black flags whip atop antennas of cars and pick-ups and vans.

A fence bordering the famed Gallagher-Iba Arena is filled with black and orange cloth strips.

Almost everybody is wearing an orange ribbon, even 6-week-old Mason Thomas, asleep in an infant carrier in an ice-cream parlor.

“All of these people were such good people,” Kathy Peacock, Mason’s grandmother, said of the victims, and that makes the unexplained that much more unfathomable.

Oklahoma State University lost 10 of its good people in one of the worst ways.

A turboprop plane, one of three aircraft returning from a game at the University of Colorado in Boulder, crashed in an isolated field 20 miles south of Denver. It left a mile-long gash of wreckage. It left years of uncountable hurt.

“There were a lot of tears,” said Landon Jones, 20, a freshman who lives in the athletes’ dorm. “It’s still pretty hard to think about.”


Lost forever were Daniel Lawson Jr., 21, a junior guard from Detroit; Nate Fleming, 20, a likable freshman walk-on whose presence prompted fans to chant, “Nate! Nate! Nate!” near the end of blowout games when he might play; Bill Teegins, 48, voice of the Oklahoma State football and basketball broadcasts; Will Hancock, 31, coordinator of media relations; Brian Luinstra, 29, trainer; Jared Weiberg, 22, student manager; Pat Noyes, 27, director of basketball operations; Kendall Durfey, 38, broadcast engineer; Denver Mills, 55, pilot and Bjorn Fallstrom, 30, co-pilot.

“I think people in Oklahoma realize life is precious and we need to take care of each other,” student Kassie Stevens said.


Stillwater sits by the prairies, 70 miles from the big city. Everything revolves around the university.

“It’ll take a long time for the pain to go away,” says Roy Mason, fire inspector for Oklahoma State. “This is something that’ll take the players and fans and student body a long time to get over.”

Mason would know. He has lived here for all of his 51 years. He can feel Stillwater’s pain.

He has taken to overseeing the east concourse of Gallagher-Iba Arena, where there is an astounding tribute to the Oklahoma State family.


Thousands of flowers. Hundreds of notes. Portraits of the fallen 10 line the concourse.

Officials also erected an eight-foot-high wall that stretches 64 feet, covered with white poster board that has been almost completely filled with messages written in orange and black ink, a touching part of what will become a permanent memorial in the arena. The messages signal remembrance and hope, love and pain.

Townspeople and students come through. Some cry. Others stop and stare. Nobody talks much.

Sunday, Oklahoma State Coach Eddie Sutton ushered his players into the concourse after practice instead of letting them go out the rear exit, as they had been doing since the tragedy. Some players smiled at the messages. Others nudged a teammate when something caught an eye.

They all felt the depth of the support.

Sutton knew what he was doing, even though he has never known anything so heartbreaking.

“It will be difficult and seem impossible,” he said, “but we will get through it.”

Sutton has been emotional, yet strong. He has dealt with the unimaginable loss of life while welcoming a new granddaughter two days after the crash.

His poised demeanor has drawn praise and admiration, starting with the gut-wrenching task of calling relatives of the deceased after the crash.

“There’s none of us who could imagine what it would be like, getting on the phone and calling a father, a mother, an uncle or just people that you know and say, ‘What you heard is correct, he didn’t survive,’ ” says Tom Dirato, Oklahoma State’s director of television and radio.

“It took a toll on him.”


A memorial service last Wednesday drew more than 13,000 people to the arena that less than a month ago celebrated a rebuilding and rededication.


The family section required more than 300 seats. The 10 men who died left five wives, eight daughters, two sons, 12 siblings and one fiancee, as well as parents without sons.

Sutton spoke at the service, offering prayers and love. Oklahoma State President James Halligan promised a college education for the children of the victims.

But they all needed something else. Something good. Something to start the healing.

Nine days and 10 funerals later, the Cowboys played a game.

The Fleming and Lawson families were in attendance. Students lined up at the doors hours earlier than usual.

“This was the first day that everybody was upbeat,” says student Granger Nix said of the mood on campus.

“Nate Fleming’s parents wrote a letter to the student newspaper that encouraged everyone to get rowdy.”

And they did. After a moment of silence, the fans in the self-proclaimed “rowdiest arena in the country” created an ear-splitting roar as the players took the court, wearing patches featuring an orange ribbon over a 10.


Oklahoma State ran off seven consecutive points at the start to rock the joint.

The Cowboys used a 13-4 run midway through the second half to take a 59-52 lead, but Missouri fought back and pulled within 65-64 with 1:39 left.

Maurice Baker made four free throws in the final minute to put the Cowboys up by three.

Missouri had a chance to tie the score with 3.4 seconds left, but Melvin Sanders stole the inbound pass and the clock ran out.

The Oklahoma State players huddled briefly at midcourt before leaving for the locker room, where there was an emotional outpouring.

“It was hard to just focus on basketball,” forward Andre Williams said.

“I’m just used to looking over and glancing at a couple of faces that weren’t there. It’s going to be an empty feeling from here on out. I just have to play through it.”

The Associated Press contributed to this story.



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