A plane crash, seven broken families, and the town that's helping them heal
Nearly two years later, nobody knows exactly what happened at just after midnight on April 7, 2015
If there were 50 blueberries there might as well have been a million blueberries, the splurge taking Jason Jones’ embarrassment and spilling it out onto the floor.
Jones was in the checkout line, trying to make cordial conversation with a woman he knew but never met. Jones, a scholarship athlete in college, lived for sports, still played many well into his 40s, and grew devoted to Illinois State over the years. And here he finally gets to meet Melissa Muller. Fun coincidence. He asked if she or her husband (ISU basketball coach Dan Muller) were going to Indianapolis for the national title game on Monday. She was not. Jones was eager to share his plans. He managed to snag tickets for him and a bunch of others.
“Oh, that’s going to be a drive,” she said.
Jones smiled. No: They had a private plane. It would be an easy flight there and back, all of an hour in the air. The chat was quick, genial. Jones picked up the blueberries. When Melissa got home, she relayed a message to her husband in the kitchen. This nice guy named Jason just introduced himself to me, he says hi, and let me know he was going to the title game.
“Oh yeah, Jason Jones, I know him,” Dan Muller said. “I was asked to go on the same flight.”
On April 6, 2015, college basketball’s season ended with Mike Krzyzewski winning his fifth national title, as Duke defeated Wisconsin 68-63. Among the 71,149 people in attendance were a group of men who’d never spent time together until that day. The game ended at 11:24 Eastern Time; 108 minutes later, those men would be dead in a tilled soybean field. An explanation for their demise remains unresolved.
Kathy Davis felt a calling to medicine from the time she was 7. She spent 20 years in neurosurgery, working tens of thousands of hours in the ICU and ER. Davis reached her life’s goal in November of 2014 when she was appointed as coroner for Illinois’ McClean County. When tragedy strikes and death arrives, the coroner is in charge of the scene. The body or bodies of the decedents cannot legally be touched by anyone before the coroner, who declares them dead. The coroner is also the one, when it is physically practical to do so, to tell the next of kin about the deceased, face to face. Kathy Davis speaks for those who no longer have a voice. She meets strangers in their worst moments. When they are vulnerable, she is strong.
At 3:21 a.m. on April 7, 2015, Davis was awoken by a call by from her deputy on duty.
“Kathy, we have a plane crash.”
One thing there was no doubt about: Tom Hileman’s ability as a pilot. Scott Bittner, who owned the plane, was very adamant about his first-rate airman. Hileman served in the Air Force and Air National Guard. He owned a stellar record in the skies, having spent more than half of his life at the controls. Hileman’s years with the Armed Forces taught him time management and kept him disciplined throughout his life. Hileman earned degrees in aviation and aviation management. He cleared a medical checkup as recently as February of 2015.
“Tom was a phenomenal pilot,” Johnene Beisel said. “Everyone wanted to learn from him. Every time they would fly, safety was first.”
Tom met the love of his life, Ami, when they were in grade school, and they went on to be high school sweethearts. Tom and Ami lived for adventure, spanning the globe to hike in the Andes, raft in the rapids or scuba dive in the tropics. They married in Maui. For their 10-year anniversary, Tom and Ami took to Ecuador. For a man so well-traveled, Tom nonetheless spoke no Spanish. So, fruitlessly, he attempted to break down the language barrier by merely speaking English louder and louder. In the air, he was all business. On the ground, he loved messing with his buddies, often playing pranks, like signing one up to volunteer as part of a local feral-cat-roundup initiative. He also loved coaching his youngest son, Jake, in football. And, in the heart of Chicago Bears country, Tom loved the Dallas Cowboys.
“Tom was a great pilot, a great man, has a great family, and for them to have a burden placed on their family, it makes me very sad,” Lyndsey Jones, Jason’s widow, said.
Take I-55 out of Chicago, heading southwest, and in two hours you hit Normal, home of Illinois State University. Normal is adjoined to the north with Bloomington, its bigger, sister city. Between the two, the population is nearly 130,000. Big college town, small-city feel.
“Bloomington-Normal is small enough to care but big enough to make great things happen,” John Rayford, a pastor who counseled friends and family of the victims, said.
Normal was home to the first Steak ’n Shake — in 1934. Illinois State, which famously produced No. 1 NBA pick Doug Collins in 1973, played its first game in 1898. It’s the best program to never have one really big season. No school has more victories without at least one Sweet 16 appearance in its history (ISU’s 1,602 wins rank 43rd all time).
Dan Muller, who starred at ISU in the 1990s, has guided the program to steadiness and success. This year’s team still has hope at making NCAA Tournament, even after falling in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship to Wichita State. This is Muller’s fifth season in Normal. At 41, he’s a promising young coach with a bright future. Nothing the game can throw at him will ever be tougher than these past two years, particularly the days, weeks and months that followed the tragedy in April of 2015.
Muller was awake but in bed around 6:35 a.m. when he got two calls from significant ISU boosters. He ignored both. Hours earlier, Melissa had been awoken by a call from a number she didn’t recognize. After the number called again, she assumed it was a telemarketer, turned her ringer off and fell back asleep. Then Muller’s athletic director, Larry Lyons, called. Muller got out of bed and answered the phone. Seconds later, he lunged in anguish, waking up Melissa.
“There was a crash they’re all dead Torrey’s dead.”
Torrey Ward, one of Muller’s best friends and the associate head coach on his staff, was one of the seven men taken in the crash. His name was the first to be publicly revealed later that afternoon.
The trauma and frenzy from that morning has left black spots in Dan’s memory. He called two players (but can’t remember who) to organize a meeting, fibbing about the reason for such an early, mandatory wake-up call. He called someone on his staff but isn’t sure now which person. Much has been blocked out from the time he woke up until the time he wound up at the hospital.
Just after daybreak, as the Mullers made their way through the fog-saturated sunup, Melissa’s phone rang again. It was the same number from hours ago. Now she realized. Area code: 205. That’s Birmingham, Alabama. The number belonged to Janice Ward, Torrey’s mother.
“Torrey and his mother, it is not possible to be closer,” Dan said. “They literally talked multiple times every day.”
Johnene Beisel, Torrey’s fiancée, had called Janice around 3 a.m. Now it was nearly 7.
“She was hysterical,” Janice said of Johnene’s call, remembering that she herself was wandering around her house in the dark, questioning if she was in a dream state. “She said, ‘Janice, Torrey’s dead. They’re all dead.’ And … that was … I don’t know. That was … I don’t know.”
Janice instinctively did not believe it. Torrey was her only child, and she lived alone. The calls to Melissa were her last hope. Melissa handed the phone to Dan, who told Janice it was true.
“And this wail comes out from the other line,” Melissa said. “It was terrible. I wish I could forget that.”
There were seven seats for seven people in that cozy Cessna 414A, a twin-engine turbocharged aircraft. When a plane crashes, no matter how big or small the aircraft, it is normally not the result of one event. There is an error chain.
Based off radio transmissions and official flight data, there was nothing abnormal about the flight until 12:01 a.m., when Hileman flew the plane through its final approach course, meaning he missed his final turn, the maneuver aligning him with Runway 20. Situations like this are not uncommon, and it’s not known whether or not the plane had technical malfunctions. What is known is the weather. Per the report, the airport in Bloomington was at half-mile visibility with an overcast layer of clouds at just 200 feet. In pilots’ parlance, this means conditions were “at minimums.”
Anything worse than what conditions were at that moment would have required Hileman, by law, to redirect to a safer airport for landing. The plane was descending in the worst allowable visibility that it could have conceivably, safely, landed in.
Illinois State fans are local and loyal. They’re passionate, loving and extremely involved. Quintessential Missouri Valley enthusiasts. But ISU is a small program. It is not hoisted up by big boosters who can donate tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to the athletic department. ISU’s athletic teams are bolstered by a few dozen devout donors and/or supporters. Great guys like Terry Stralow. Affable guys like Andy Butler.
Stralow was an ISU lifer, an alum who met his wife, Joan, on campus in 1976. They met at a taproom called Pub I. Eventually, Terry bought his own bar. He named it Pub II. It remains the biggest bar in town, thanks to Terry. Who didn’t love Terry? Nobody. Went by T-Bone. Fact: Everyone ever nicknamed T-Bone is someone that likes to have a great time. Terry loved ISU and he loved the Chicago Cubs. When Chicago made its World Series push last fall, Joan draped the house with Cubbies regalia. When it seemed like the Indians would beat Chicago, up three games to one, Joan visited Terry and implored him to do something from on high. She even dyed his signature drink — a T-Bone! — blue, hoping the elixir would spin magic.
She’s Type A; Terry the opposite. He planned the trips, had the fun, didn’t work a day in his life.
“I tend to put things off,” Joan said. “He’d push me. I used to say, ‘When I retire, when I retire,’ but I learned … yeah, you can’t do that.”
In the pre-dawn darkness of April 7, Johnene Biesel, after having called Janice Ward, made her way to the Stralow house. Joan had been up earlier in the night but wasn’t worried. If Terry had been delayed flying out, he would have texted. He might have landed, then gone to Pub II, right? When she had Johnene on the phone, worry settled in. Johnene arrived in a panic and insisted they drive to look for Torrey, Terry and the plane. As soon as Joan stepped outside, the thickness of the fog took her aback.
“I never would’ve let an eight-months-pregnant woman drive to my house if I knew the weather was that bad,” she said.
Johnene was carrying Torrey’s child. He died without knowing if he was having a boy or a girl.
Joan and Johnene frustratingly drove around Bloomington for 30 minutes, but the fog was too dangerous. They never got to the airport, never found any plane. While tragedy and trauma converged on Bloomington-Normal later that morning, Joan was speeding out of town toward the University of Missouri, a more-than-four-hour drive away. She was trying to beat the world in getting to her son.
“I wanted to get to him before the news media,” she said.
She lost the race.
Joan had put in for retirement come May of 2015. Her job had been posted, but after the crash, her employer gave her the option to stay on. It’s been vital. She stays busy, is around friends, has structure. Joan still has her daughter, Jill, in town, but her son, Jordan, has moved to Denver at the encouragement of mom. After he graduated from Missouri, she told him to try something new. Joan wanted him to get a fresh perspective. He needed that.
“With little kids, the hardest thing is keeping the memories alive,” Joan said. “With adults, they know what they lost.”
Because visibility was decreased, Hileman would have followed what’s referred to as the “glide slope” until he was 200 feet above ground. It is possible, at such low altitude, that Hileman still would not have been able to see the runway environment. If he wasn’t able to see the runway, Hileman had an option. It is possible he tried to execute what’s known as a “missed approach.” In this instance, FAA instructions — printed, and with Hileman on the plane, not given over the radio — would have been there to guide Hileman to a specific navigational point and altitude. Upon getting to that point, he would have had more options to decide what to do next.
If Hileman did indeed decide to go “missed,” he went the opposite way from what the chart instructed, opting for the easterly course instead of turning west, according to the NTSB report. He also would have been instructed to climb to 3,000 feet, but the accident report from the NTSB shows that, after the first attempt at landing, the plane never got higher than 1,800 feet. Based off this evidence, the error chain now had a link. But what caused it?
Jamie Fox lives in the quiet. She doesn’t have children and probably won’t ever get the chance.
“I’m lonely,” she said. “Others with kids don’t have time to themselves. I have too much time to myself, too much time to grieve. It’s just so quiet now.”
Jamie and Andy Butler were together 15 years. Friends teased them about not being married but also admitted their relationship was stronger and happier than most wedded couples they knew. Andy was exceedingly optimistic.
“He was literally always happy,” Jamie said. “I don’t think I can find one person who has seen him in a bad mood.”
Jamie and Andy both attended ISU but met after college. They went for ice cream on their first date. Their personalities collided beautifully. Andy was so funny, so easy for Jamie to talk to. He was terrified of roller coasters but went on them anyway because Jamie loved them. He wore glasses because putting in contact lenses freaked him out. She teased him about that. He loved ISU so much, attended so many games, that after his death people asked Jamie what job Andy had at the school.
Andy ran the sales team at Sprint.
He was everywhere for everyone. Andy held a wide circle of friends, was a good golfer, loved ping pong and hated losing in Monopoly. Like Terry Stralow, he was a massive Cubs fan. Years ago, Andy added his name to the waiting list for season tickets. In 2017, his name came up. When the Cubs won the World Series, Jamie cried alone. Andy would’ve been at Game 7 in Cleveland. He probably would’ve been at all the World Series games.
“I hate that he’s missing so much,” she said.
After more than a decade of living together, they agreed that marriage and children should be in their future. He popped the question as they walked their dog, Boomer, on a beautiful day.
“We didn’t realize we were getting old,” Jamie said.
They kissed and kept it a secret. Andy Butler died holding that secret.
Jamie was the last to believe. She woke up around 3 a.m. and checked the house to see if Andy had fallen asleep downstairs. She called him but went back to bed, only to be woken up at 5 by a distressed friend, Lindsay Leetch. She knew Lindsay well; ISU deputy athletic director Aaron Leetch and Andy Butler were very close. Shortly after Joan and Johnene failed to find a way to the airport, Jamie arrived there, around 5:45 a.m. She only knew the way because Andy had previously shown her where the private planes were. She saw the cars in the parking lot, Andy’s included. Jamie sat in the facility for an hour; think of it akin to a room you wait in for an oil change. A small TV brought no news updates. She thumbed her phone looking for anything. She remained hopeful. She entered into full denial.
“It was kind of a sick feeling and fighting it and not letting myself believe it,” Jamie said. “Something obviously has happened at this point, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s dead.”
As she is waiting, ISU athletic director Larry Lyons pulls into, then shortly thereafter leaves, the parking lot. He recognizes a few cars, including Aaron Leetch’s, Terry Stralow’s, Andy Butler’s and Jamie Fox’s. Lyons thinks Jamie was on the flight. Then he calls Dan Muller, who’s awake but in bed, and about to receive a call that will change him forever.
Jamie eventually went back to the Leetch home. A short time later, as she stood in their driveway, she held her friends’ hands and revealed publicly for the first time she and Andy were engaged. They were going to throw a surprise wedding on Sept. 26 of that year and the reception would be held at the club level of Illinois State’s football stadium. The final details were confirmed the week before Andy died. He even convinced Terry Stralow to hold a private party at Pub II, but Terry had no idea what it would actually be for — the wedding’s afterparty.
When Jamie got home that morning, neighbors were bringing over food before she even believed her fiancé was gone. She and Andy had known someone who survived a plane crash. Eventually, the benevolent Kathy Davis showed up and said the words she’s required to say: “Andy Butler is dead.”
Cremation was the only option for Andy. Jamie can’t have the ashes in the house. Her sister and brother-in-law keep them. Little by little, Jamie continues to spread Andy’s remains. They’re on Florida beaches, beneath trees planted in his name, next to the memorial on campus and on the ISU football field, among plenty of other places.
“I like the idea of taking a little bit with me,” she said.
Holidays are the worst — all of them. From Christmas to Fourth of July to Easter. With the help of her parents, Jamie’s kept busy by painting rooms in her house, including the garage. But it’s been almost two years, and there is almost nothing left to paint.
Torrey Ward could pivot the feeling of a room. He carried an intoxicating personality. He’d charm you upside-down.
“He was a big goofball, a big kid, but that’s what I loved about him,” Johnene said.
Ward would often hike up his basketball shorts to his chest, get his whistle and chirp around the house, at practice, in the offices. This fortissimo character of his was so much a part of his personality, Muller did a loving imitation of it at Ward’s funeral.
Torrey was a teacher’s pet, a momma’s boy for life, someone who chose to stay close to home and play for UAB. He earned a scholarship after only taking up basketball for a few years, and would later play with Yao Ming in China.
“There was always an upward opportunity in every down situation,” Reverend John Rayford said. “A smile, a warmth that was bigger than his humanity. He had a draw that was inhuman. An infectious draw, a contagious draw. T-Ward was, in fact, a magnet, but he was also heaven’s mirror. He could reflect a source bigger than himself. That’s T-Ward.”
Ward was working his way up in college basketball. In 2014, Muller promoted him to associate head coach. Muller trusted Ward’s basketball IQ, knew he had good attention to detail, could absolutely recruit, and loved his personality. At the time of his death he was a candidate for the Southeast Missouri State job, having interviewed at the Final Four only days prior. He asked his mother to edit his resume. He needed her help.
“He had texted me a picture of what he was going to wear because he wanted to make sure I thought it was going to be OK,” she said, then stopped for an emotional moment.
“We were this little team,” Janice said. “That’s how I thought of us. I was a single parent and he was an only child and it was only us for so long. There is, physically and emotionally and everything, now a part of me that is gone.”
Janice finds small comforts, like how they talked even more than usual the day before he died. She made sure to tell him how proud she was. She knew he knew. This is how she copes.
Muller and Ward are intertwined in this story not only because they were great friends, but because Ward took the trip after Muller declined due to coaching responsibilities. Ward went in part because of the game, but also to continue to build relationships on behalf of ISU. While there is mystery that lingers in this tragedy, there is an answer for why it was those men who died: not only were they going because of the sheer joy they got from basketball, but also to better relationships, to bring each other closer to their school and, in doing so, themselves and their community.
Few better at that than Torrey Ward.
The control tower in Bloomington had been closed for two hours by the time Hileman was preparing to land. Towers going dark before midnight is typical of smaller airports. The plane was under the assistance of Air Traffic Control in Peoria (40 miles west). Without ATC communication on site, there was no one to give assistance to Hileman on his first attempt at landing and subsequent missed approach. Approach control was on standby in Peoria for Hileman to re-contact, but there is no record of Hileman transmitting to any control center after 12:01.
Without assistance on the ground locally, the checks and balances were compromised. The fact that no one was in the local tower was not pivotal, but could have been a critical. If local tower control on site had been operating, it would have assisted with communication and navigational instructions to Hileman in his final phase of flight. If Hileman intended a missed approach, standard procedure would have been for him to flip his radio frequency back to ATC in Peoria, but that never happened. And had someone been on the ground in Bloomington to assist, the error chain might have been broken or, at the very least, someone could have queried Hileman about his altitude prior to impact.
Sixteen hours before the crash, Ward was thinking he wouldn’t make the trip. With Kentucky no longer able to capture a 40-0 season, he wasn’t sure it would be worth it. Johnene wanted him to stay home. She never liked private planes. But Torrey changed his mind. He had a deli’s lunch with Johnene at home, and then he was on the phone with his mother until he got to the airport. When Janice got to Bloomington-Normal on the afternoon of April 7, the fog floating above the town still hadn’t entirely cleared. Relatives were calling — she didn’t recognize their voices.
“My determination was I had to get my child,” she said. “It’s still very hard to not focus on Torrey not being here.”
The man who invited Muller on the plane was Illinois State deputy athletic director Aaron Leetch. Like Ward, Leetch was destined for big things, a rising star in his field. Ward and Leetch knew Terry Stralow and Andy Butler particularly well. After Muller passed on the trip, Leetch put out the invite to Torrey. Muller dipped into Ward’s office — Torrey was on the phone, as always — and told him the seat was his if he wanted it.
Leetch was a total get-it guy at the college administrative level, someone without question on the track to being a big figure in Division I.
“The guy had a knack for building relationships,” Larry Lyons, ISU’s athletic director, said. “He was going to be a star of an AD.”
He balanced the mandatory travel of Division I work with a lovely home life. Lindsay Leetch described her husband as the type of endearing father who dreaded the trips that took him away from his daughters, Avery and Emmersen. The day before the crash, the Leetch family had an incredible Easter together. A big brunch on a perfect day. Lindsay was tired that afternoon and didn’t really want to go out, but Aaron loved flying kites with his girls. So they all did just that.
The Leetches haven’t flown a kite since.
“I can’t bring myself to do it,” Lindsay said.
Aaron and Lindsay were head-over-heels lovers from the onset. They met in church in 2004, went on their first date three days later, and that night Lindsay told her mother she’d met the man she would marry. It was really like they’d known each other forever.
“To be able to look across the room and look at somebody and know what they’re thinking, that’s a pretty cool thing,” she said.
They met in August, were engaged in October and married the following April, in 2005. Lindsay and Aaron were supposed to leave on April 8, 2015, for their 10-year anniversary excursion to Riviera Maya, where they honeymooned. It was the only time Aaron ever purchased trip insurance.
The night of the crash, Lindsay had a headache. She’d normally wait up for Aaron, but she went to bed earlier. At exactly 3 a.m., she sat up and knew something was wrong. There were no messages on her phone. The lights she left on for Aaron had not been turned off.
“I just knew,” she said. “I just could feel it in my soul that he was gone. I don’t know, I can’t explain it, but I just knew.”
Lindsay walked downstairs, turned a chair toward the front window and helplessly waited for almost two hours. She texted Jamie Fox to no response. As Lyndsey Jones, Carrie Bittner and Ami Hileman were frantically trying to piece together what had just been shattered, Lindsay Leetch sat in frantic silence. While Joan Stralow and Johnene Biesel were driving in fog thicker than syrup, Lindsay only waited in her dining room. No one called her. No one with law enforcement or emergency personnel could tell her what was going on.
Eventually, close to 5 a.m., she induced someone at the sheriff’s department to tell her a plane crash had occurred.
“Then I had my moment on the floor,” she said.
She composed herself and insisted, until anything was 100 percent confirmed, Avery and Emmersen would have a normal morning.
Aaron Leetch’s enduring personality trait was honesty. He did the right thing because it was right. He was a man of deep faith, someone who believed in Jesus. Lindsay said he had no doubts about where he would go when he died.
“I have no doubt of where he is,” Lindsay said. “There is comfort in that. I do grieve differently than someone who does not believe in that. It doesn’t make it any easier some days. … He has absolutely carried me. When my life turned into something I didn’t even recognize, God was there, and has carried us and he will continue to carry us.”
Leetch wore a cross necklace every day. You’d never see it, but it was there. He wore it in the crash. Now, Lindsay wears that necklace, Aaron’s wedding band dangling next to it on the chain. The Leetches have remained in Normal, but last June, they moved out of their old house. Aaron is buried near Dallas, where he grew up.
Avery was only 6 at the time of the crash (Emmersen was 4) but a memory of her father still endures. For a couple of years, Aaron was an athletic director at Whitworth College, in Spokane, Washington. It was nagging at him that he was away for six months as the family stayed behind to try and sell their home. He flew back, just to see Avery start preschool for a few days. Avery still remembers so much about that day.
“Yes there are certain days that smack us upside the head,” Lindsay said. “I wish we could’ve had 50 more years, but we packed in a lot of stuff in our 10 years. We had more in our 10 years than some have in 60. My girls, they are the ones I hurt for. Because he was so good, he did adore them so much, and I can’t say enough good things about him to them.”
Aaron sat in the plane’s front passenger seat. Hileman never radioed a distress call, and Cessna 414A’s don’t have voice recorders. The last record of Hileman talking to ATC is five minutes prior to the crash, at 12:01. Radar data shows the plane aligned with the runaway at 12:04. Over the next 45 seconds, Hileman brought the plane up and turned east — instead of west, which, per the report, would have been the instructed route had he decided to go “missed”— moving away from the airport and to the eventual crash site.
The riddle of this crash is maddening. Hileman could have been scrambling (if he was technically lost, amid visibility issues and/or dealing with possible aircraft malfunction), and it can be increasingly challenging to pilot in poor weather during the busiest phases of flight: taking off and landing. Also, Hileman did not have a copilot. He wasn’t required to have one, but copilots can often become valuable when missed approaches present themselves. The great mystery of this tragedy is whether or not Hileman was deceived by either the weather or a possible unforeseen mechanical failure — and if he wound up flying “low” without ever realizing it.
Lyndsey Jones was the one who never fall asleep.
“I don’t like planes. I’ve never liked planes,” she said.
She and her husband, Jason, had an agreement every time he flew. You text within five minutes of taking off and landing. It was such a short flight, she would wait up. She laid in bed, then texted after midnight. Your five minutes are up.
No response. She sent a few more texts.
“He knew it was taking years off my life if I didn’t hear from him,” she said.
Lyndsey texted her best friend, Carrie Bittner, around 12:20 a.m. Then she got on the computer and checked flight information. By 1 a.m., she’d driven 10 minutes through thickening fog to Carrie’s house.
“At this point, I’m already thinking the worst,” Lyndsey said.
Part of the tragedy here is how many of the men initially wavered with the trip. Terry Stralow and Aaron Leetch were going to rent a van if the weather conditions were clearly too tough to fly home. Jason, like Torrey, wasn’t sure he was even going to go. He didn’t want to miss his son Jack’s flag football game that Monday night, and he was sheepish about even bringing up the trip to Lyndsey. Jack scored a couple of touchdowns that night. Lyndsey took Jack and his sister, Kate, out to dinner while dad was at the national title game. Before bed, they played basketball as a trio in the driveway.
“I just did not like it even then,” Lyndsey said. “Something about it just being the three of us, not four.”
Jason and Lyndsey met in Chicago in 1997. He proposed in Hilton Head, South Carolina, where they went almost every vacation thereafter. Kate hung the moon in Jason’s eyes, while Jack and Jason did basically everything as father and son. They loved going to ISU games, and Jason was an active father, someone looking forward to having Jack challenge him in sports as he got older. Jason Jones had something for everyone. He could talk for hours about food or respectfully spar on politics. His laugh was one of those cackles that broke apart the air around him. You hear it, you couldn’t help but smile.
Lyndsey was never big on watching sports. Now she puts games on as background noise as a calming mechanism. And her children have raised her up. Kate tells mommy that daddy is always in her heart and mind. Only recently did Lyndsey empty out Jason’s closet. She’d wander in there on occasion and throw herself around his clothes, which still harbored his smell.
“People are like, ‘Oh, you’re moving on, you’re moving forward!’ It’s not really by choice,” she said. “Sometimes things are just really painful to go through every day. Knowing I’m never going to see him in those clothes, it was torture on an everyday basis.”
Jason Jones knew Andy Butler and Scott Bittner best. Bittner ran a local meat-packing company. He’d done it for two decades of his life. He’s left behind daughter Ella and son Hayden, both of whom are now in middle school.
“My kids have been robbed. All these kids have been robbed,” Carrie Bittner said. “We were all different women with different marriages at different stages of our lives. And that’s what’s ironic. It’s not like these were seven close, tight friends. They all knew each other, but before this I didn’t know Lindsay Leetch or Jamie Fox. Now we’re all a part of this club that no one wants to be a part of.”
Like Joan and Terry Stralow, Carrie and Scott met at Illinois State. He proposed by tying a ring to a sinkable pool toy and had Carrie unsuspectingly dive down for it. Scott was often the life of the party — like Torrey. He was a boss his employees loved, the kind with a huge heart, somebody who would help out anybody. He gave his employees loans, then told them they could work off the debt instead of paying him back. He was trusting. Bloomington-Normal was better for having Scott Bittner in the community. Scott had more than 1,500 people attend his memorial services. Carrie stood in the receiving line for approximately five hours, unsure now of how she got through it.
“There’s just a higher power,” she said. “Something is helping you stand. And this community was absolutely amazing.”
And now Carrie speaks in awe of Ella and Hayden, both young athletes and great students in the formative years of their growth.
“They’re what keep me going,” she said. “If I didn’t have them, I don’t know. They’re the ones who forced me to get out of bed in the morning. I didn’t have a choice. I look at them and I have a piece of Scott. Thank God. They’re more protective of me than I was of them. This is what makes me sad. They’re worried more than any kid should have to be.”
Because of the accident, one of the children now is triggered by anything that might indicate their mother is in trouble. If she doesn’t pick up a phone call or return text messages, anxiety clicks in.
“They struggle with the fear of losing their mom,” Carrie said.
It was Carrie and Lyndsey who got first confirmation of the crash, methodically making phone calls, initially hoping the plane had been rerouted because of the fog that had, by that point, fully ensconced the county.
“I think my body started going into shock before I even knew,” Carrie said. “I got really cold, my mouth got really dry.”
They made call after call, and just before 4 a.m., authorities confirmed a plane had been found. Stunningly, it was nearby. Eventually, Carrie got a call from Joan Stralow, who was driving in the middle of nowhere with Johnene. In the immediate hours after the crash, Carrie refused to cry for the sake of her children. She returned home to intercept anyone telling her family before she did.
After getting confirmation that they would never see their husbands again, Lyndsey Jones and Carrie Bittner steadied themselves, then woke up their children and told them their fathers would not be coming home. Scott’s death came days before Hayden’s birthday. Around 9 a.m. that Monday, Kathy Davis got to Carrie and Lyndsey first. They went to the Holiday Inn, as the Red Cross had set up a grievance area for the families.
“I was in self-preservation mode,” Carrie said. “The first week I was numb and in shock. It’s almost like I was not here. I was in a daze. I had people helping me with my kids. I know other people were taking care of everything. Funeral services, arrangements, and all that. I really wasn’t receptive at all to what was going on.”
Ella and Hayden slept on Scott’s side of the bed, next to Carrie, for weeks. She remembers family basically force-feeding her that spring.
“If somebody could have shattered my heart, it was like I couldn’t breathe,” she said.
Jason Jones’ remains were cremated. He was spread all around Hilton Head, including the place where he married his love. Lyndsey hates planes, but she has flown since Jason’s death. On that first flight, she bluntly thought: At the very worst, if this plane goes down, at least me and my kids will be reunited with Jason. She endured nightmares about death for the first three months after the crash, images of being stuck in an institution, searching for Jason but never finding him.
The actual cause of the accident is a puzzle. The case remains open; the NTSB has not resolved its investigation nor given a conclusive explanation for the crash and/or error chain.
The clumped wreckage was found by search and rescue teams at approximately 3:15 a.m., more than three hours after impact and less than two miles northeast of the airport. It was the first time anyone on the scene had dealt with such an accident. The debris field, surprisingly, was minimal. The plane did not burst into flame and there was no fire when crews found the crash. Parts of the Cessna were broken off, but most of the fuselage was intact. Just after 4 a.m., Kathy Davis walked a quarter of a mile into the muddy bean field. She looked through the plane’s windows. All the men were still in their seat belts. Blunt force trauma had ended their lives. Some were identified with dental records.
“They looked comfortable,” Davis said. “Like they were all sitting with their best friends. None of them were in a tucked position. I don’t think they knew it was coming.”
Johnene Biesel worked as a hairstylist in town. While on the job, she befriended this wonderful, caring woman, someone who appreciated Johnene’s open heart and kindness. In February of 2015, the woman in the chair explained how she had lost a lifelong friend who’d just died, taken far too young. As Johnene did her hair, the woman grieved. Most didn’t expect her to grieve; it went against the nature of her job.
But coroners cry too.
“Don’t ever come to my house and tell me any bad news,” Johnene lightheartedly told Kathy Davis.
It was on her way to meet Carrie Bittner and Lyndsey Jones when Kathy put two and two together: one of the men on the plane was engaged to her hairstylist. Later that morning, she walked into St. Joseph Medical Center. Johnene was hooked up to equipment, laying in bed, her heart rate flaring on the monitor screen, everyone on alert for both her and the eight-month-old fetus inside of her.
“Kathy, I thought we were friends?” Johnene said, wailing. “Why would you do this?”
As Kathy tried to get the words out, she took Johnene’s hand. When others are at their worst, Kathy is at her strongest. And she was then, right there, just as she was for every widow, father, son, child and mother that day. Johnene kept rolling her head back and forth on the pillow, blurting out interruptive noises. Eventually, what had to be said was said.
“Torrey Ward is dead.”
“It’s not true! It’s not true!”
“Yes, it is.”
The Mullers were in the room at the time. That night would be the first Johnene stayed at their house. She lived with them well into the summer.
“I’d never seen anyone in that much misery in my life,” Melissa Muller said. “In just … inescapable misery.”
Kathy and her deputies never cried in front of the families.
“These people are so wonderful,” Kathy said. “They are the nicest families, of course they are the nicest families. I have never told them how much we cared, how much we were there for them. My emotions didn’t matter.”
For most outside the radius of Bloomington-Normal, the scope of a seven-passenger plane tragedy was soon out of mind after the wreckage got cleared. Locally, counselors and therapists had appointments for months, helping so many whose jobs required them to deal with the calamity. Everyone coped differently. One of the children left voicemails on their deceased father’s phone months after the crash, dropping messages dad would never hear.
Audrey La’Kendrick Ward, who shares a middle name with her father, was born at St. Joseph hospital on May 3, 2015. The 3 is fitting, as it’s the number her father wore, a number that now hangs in the rafters in UAB’s arena. That’s where Torrey’s memorial service was held. Three days after the crash, Johnene rode with the team, by bus, for 12 hours from Normal to Birmingham.
In the Illinois State locker room, the carpet now has the “7” symbol with the initials all of the men who perished. The emblem matches the patches worn by Illinois State’s teams. Outside the basketball arena, a gorgeous seven-basalt-column memorial endlessly bubbles above a bed of smooth stones, the monument serving as a public place of remembrance. Muller has a shelf in his office dedicated to Ward, but more than that, he can’t shake Torrey from his mind or body, nor does he want to. The jackets fit nice. When Illinois State clinched the Missouri Valley regular-season title this season, Muller was in Ward’s wardrobe. He wears his clothes, socks included, on occasion during games.
“I wanted to wear it just because he should’ve been there with us,” Muller said.
ISU senior Paris Lee has worn Ward’s old pair of Jordans all season, too. Size 12. They fit so well.
Illinois State’s a damn good basketball team this season, and Muller’s ability to keep this program steady amid horror has been exemplary. Lee and Tony Wills spoke of the coach they miss and the one they have, and both noted how much closer the team has become over the past two years. Many of ISU’s current players were recruited and coached by Torrey.
“He’s with us everywhere,” Wills said.
Torrey’s memorial service was the only one not held locally. Six visitations and six funerals occupied the darkest weekend in Bloomington-Normal history, and even now, for a city that size, there is no moving past something like this. Reasons for the crash hover in the unknown, only compounding frustrations.
“There are times, yes, that the crash does get into my head and you say I want to know what happened and you kind of end up sitting with that for a little bit, but to try to function or something else happens and you have to pivot away from it, you put it aside,” Janice Ward said. “Do I want to know what happened? I do. Sometimes I wonder even if they say it appears it was X-X-X, we think, Will we ever really know? Will it give me closure in that regard? Closure maybe that I can put that to rest, but I’m not really sure the knowing really gives me closure. I’m not even sure if I buy into the whole idea of closure. I just don’t know.”
Seven great men were taken decades too soon. Seven family men who were a part of something, who helped make that area and Illinois State University feel small and big at the same time. The news of the plane crash came and went, making headlines nationally but for a blur, but this is forever a part of Illinois State’s identity, similar to other universities gashed by tragic plane accidents, like Oklahoma State, Marshall and Evansville.
“Been a while,” Lyons says, referring to this being his first crying spell about the crash in a long time.
Then, overtaken by emotion, he removes himself from the phone. Lyons weeps as he remembers “the 7” and proudly speaks of the wives and children who’ve given inspiration to thousands around Bloomington-Normal. As he thinks back to all that was awful about that day, there was one necessary safeguard put in place to prevent further distress.
“We kept the TV trucks off of seven front lawns,” Lyons said. “The media didn’t go to anybody’s house. By making some really good decisions, and we didn’t know we were making them, we set some parameters. The families didn’t have to deal with any media. It all came to Illinois State.”
When this tragedy happened, the entire ISU community put its emotions on hold to care for those who lost the most.
“It’s like having a wound on your body,” Reverend John Rayford said. “There was an attack, and both hands went to that hurt to try to render aid. And that’s what happened when that plane fell with great members of the community. We will be, have been, and will again be revived.”
Lyons and his staff organized a moment of silence that September at the start of the team’s first football game. Lyons worried the agony was getting extended into the fall, but the families agreed it was an appropriate thing to do, given how much the men were connected to the university. And after the moment of silence, in an improvisational act of overwhelming love: the football team engulfed the families in bear hugs. The crowd roared. A community began to heal but vowed to never forget.
“Well, our bond is ISU,” Joan Stralow said.
Aaron Leetch loved to be right down on the field, too. He preferred standing at the 20-yard line. That day, Lindsay stood in her husband’s place during the game. The women who’ve been brought together by this tragedy have named themselves the Wives Club — beloved and treasured mom, Janice Ward, included. They are connected by tragic events but fastened by spirit. Strong, brave, courageous women. Incredible mothers. They were taken in by an event and have been changed in eight different ways, but forever linked in grief, compassion and solicitude.
“As I look at it now, and the first year is just a fog, and we don’t even remember, we don’t remember what we did,” Joan said. “But as that understanding, maybe not accepting, but understanding what happened and it’s not going to change, as that occurs, you kind of like, I don’t know, for me, we all are affected by the same tragedy but it’s affected us differently. It affects us differently because how it affects our kids. Because of the difference in our ages. For me, probably the hardest part is the loneliness. I’m alone now.”
The seven men are strongly survived by five wives, two fiancées and 13 children.
“I’ll never have enough kind words to say about this community,” Lindsay Leetch said. “I’m indebted to this community and ISU.”
“Having a group of people who you really genuinely like, I don’t know what I’d do without them,” Jamie Fox said.
Jamie goes to ISU games now. She didn’t want to at first, but it’s become beneficial. She goes with her niece and nephew. They were such good buddies with Andy. At one game this year, Maddie, her niece, was crying. Jamie asked what for.
“And she said, ‘Andy should be here,’” Jamie said. “It’s always those moments that sneak up on me.”
This year, on the two-year anniversary of the tragedy, Project 7 will again be revived. The women will go around and commit seven random acts of kindness for others. The process exemplifies the men lost and further tightens the bond in Bloomington-Normal.
“We have such gratitude for the people that have stepped up and been involved in this,” Lyndsey Jones said. “Things can go really bad and really south in a situation like this — or you can try to honor them by behaving kindly, treating people nicely.”
Audrey Ward is almost 2, and Johnene shows her pictures of her father at night. She’s on a big daddy kick now. Johnene has kept Torrey’s clothes, shoes, cologne, the wallet with $20 still in it, his travel bag and more. Audrey’s first months were spent at the Mullers’ home. They are her godparents. Johnene has since left Illinois, but still visits frequently. Torrey had two children from a previous marriage, and they are very much a part of the Illinois State community, too. Muller often FaceTime’s Torrey’s son.
“It was like I was thrown into motherhood, I kind of, I don’t know, I kicked into mom mode and I knew i had to be strong for this child and provide,” Johnene said. “Dan and Melissa were amazing. … It was just chaos on top of grieving on top of I don’t know what. I look back now and I’m like, I don’t even know how all that happened and I got through that. I’ll just be walking around today and it just hits me. People don’t go through that in a lifetime. I feel forever connected to Bloomington-Normal. Sometimes I just have no words, but it is, I mean, I was just amazed at the overflowing support. These people went above and beyond to make sure Audrey and I had everything we needed. Still to this day, they support. I just feel we’ll be forever connected.”
Some of the women want more answers. Others don’t think clarity with the crash will change anything. Illinois State and its community has been forever altered, made stronger, and more grateful in the wake of the unfair. The spirit of the 7 was revived, and will be revived again and again, and their presence will persist.
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