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Oklahoma State community far too familiar with unspeakable tragedy

"Brace yourself," his brother-in-law said. "There's been another plane crash involving OSU."

Everything came flooding back. Hancock, the BCS' executive director, began to cry. And it's likely the same scene played out countless times Friday morning,as news filtered out to the extended Oklahoma State community of another unfathomable tragedy.

Oklahoma State women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna died Thursday afternoon when their single-engine plane crashed in rugged terrain in Central Arkansas. Also killed were former Oklahoma State Senator Olin Branstetter, 82, and his wife, Paula Branstetter. Both were pilots.

"God forbid, it happened again," said school president Burns Hargis, adding: "It's our worst nightmare."

It's everyone's. But somehow, Oklahoma State must endure it for a second time. On Jan. 27, 2001, a plane carrying members of the Cowboys' men's basketball traveling party crashed in a Colorado field. Ten died. Inside the lobby at Gallagher-Iba Arena, a cowboy kneels in perpetual sadness, proclaiming: "WE WILL REMEMBER."

And now they'll need to build another memorial.

"I don't even know what to say," said Hancock, whose son, Will, died in the 2001 crash. "None of them did anything to deserve it."

No one's sure what to say, or what happened. Budke and Serna were headed to Little Rock on a recruiting trip. A deer hunter saw the plane go down on a hillside about 4 p.m. in the Ouachita National Forest. It wasn't until sometime after midnight that the remains were identified and school officials were notified. They spent the early morning hours notifying family and team members, then the larger university community.

The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating. After the 2001 tragedy, Oklahoma State instituted a travel policy requiring aircraft to be "powered by two or more turbine engines." A school spokesman told the Tulsa World that coaches were not bound by the policies. But those are questions for another day; today is for mourning.

By mid-morning, bouquets of flowers were beginning to pile up around the memorial at the arena, as people tried to cope with a sadness they already knew too well. The school canceled women's basketball games Saturday and Sunday, as well as a wrestling match. Oklahoma State's football game Friday night at Iowa State will go on as scheduled, but with heavy hearts.

"Absolute devastation," Hargis said. "There's no way to describe it."

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And no way to explain how their worst nightmare, as Hargis put it, happened again.

Budke, 50, was extremely popular. In his seventh season in Stillwater, he had elevated the program, taking the Cowgirls to three NCAA tournament appearances, including a Sweet 16. Serna, 36, had been on his staff for seven years. Hargis described Budke and Serna as "incredible mentors."

"He loved this place," said associate head coach Jim Littell, who will assume duties as interim coach. It's a common sentiment in a tight-knit community, where ties run deep -- and where wounds are still healing from the 2001 crash.

Megan Byford played for Budke and Serna and is now a graduate assistant at Pittsburg (Kans.) State. She recalls being heartbroken after hearing of the plane crash in 2001. "I couldn't imagine something like that happening," she said. Friday morning, a former teammate called a little after 5 a.m.

"It's a nightmare," Byford said. "Like a sick joke. There's no way this is happening again."

Hancock, who battled depression after his son's death, said he "hadn't cried like that in a long time." He said the important thing now is for the Oklahoma State family to provide comfort to the families.

Hancock's daughter-in-law, Karen, Will's widow, remains an assistant coach on the women's soccer team. His granddaughter, Andrea, celebrated her 11th birthday this week. Time has helped heal, but Friday's news brought it all back, fresh and raw.

"Nothing else matters," Hancock said, "other than Shelley [Budke's wife], the kids and the other families. I don't know them, but I know what they're going though."

And Hancock knows, probably better than anyone, that dark days lie ahead.

"They will experience," Hancock said, "a kind of love from the university, the state and the entire sports community that I have never experienced in any other way.

"And they will need every ounce of it."