April 08, 2015

NORMAL, Ill. (AP) As Illinois State University mourned Wednesday over the deaths of an assistant basketball coach, a school administrator and five fans killed in a plane crash, investigators focused on one of the many questions they'll have to answer: Why the aircraft made a sudden turn in an unexpected direction.

National Transportation Safety Board investigator Todd Fox said the twin-engine Cessna 414 began to climb out of its descent into Central Illinois Regional Airport early Tuesday as if it had missed its approach. If that happened, the plane should have climbed and turned west. Instead it turned east. The school officials and fans on the plane were returning from the NCAA Tournament in Indianapolis.

''The aircraft was seen (on radar) to climb and then descend well on this easterly heading'' before crashing in a farm field just east of the airport, Fox said. The final radio communications from pilot Thomas Hileman as the plane neared the airport included no sign of distress, Fox added.

Final word on the crash will not come for a year to 18 months, though a preliminary report is expected next week.

At a news conference on campus, Illinois State coach Dan Muller, athletic director Larry Lyons and basketball player John Jones mourned the deaths of 36-year-old associate head coach Torrey Ward and Aaron Leetch, the athletic department's 37-year-old deputy director for external relations.

Muller choked up as he tried to talk about the two. The trip was a gathering of friends, and one Muller could have easily have been part of it if he didn't need to stay on campus for work, he said.

''I was asked to go on the plane, yes,'' said the coach, his eyes swollen and red.

Jones talked about Ward's role as a take-charge father figure for a team that won 22 games and made the National Invitation Tournament, Illinois State's first postseason appearance since 2012.

Jones said at halftime of one game in which Illinois State struggled, Ward took control of the locker room, a moment that helped spark the team to a better season.

''He sat us down and said `This is not what we want to do, this is not the season we want to have,''' said Jones, who said he last talked to Ward Friday by text. ''I wish I could see him again.''

Along with Ward and Leetch, killed in the crash were five other Bloomington-area men: the 51-year-old pilot, Hileman; 64-year-old Terry Stralow; 45-year-old Jason Jones; 42-year-old Scott Bittner; and 40-year-old Andrew Butler.

All seven victims, who were found strapped in their seats, died from blunt force trauma resulting from the crash, McLean County Coroner Kathleen Davis said.

The airport was open and all systems, including its runway lighting, were functioning, though the tower had closed several hours earlier and handed responsibility to an air traffic control facility in Peoria. Radar contact was lost moments before the crash, and a search was launched when the pilot failed to close out his flight plan. It took about three hours to find the wreckage.

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Keyser reported from Chicago.

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