Firefighters relive search for down plane and recovery

Fire chief said fog, early hour and grassy area made it a "needle in a haystack search"


By Edith Brady-Lunny
The Pantagraph, Bloomington

BLOOMINGTON, Ill. — When the calls first came into the Bloomington Fire Department shortly before 1 a.m. April 7 that a plane was missing, everyone hoped for the best as they headed to an area east of Bloomington to begin searching for the twin engine aircraft.

Bloomington fire crews began their search at the Central Illinois Regional Airport property and, with the help of Bloomington Police Department officers, moved to rural areas beyond the airport's boundaries.

"The first hopes are that the plane has landed and just failed to tell the tower," said Bloomington Police Assistant Chief Clay Wheeler.

But those hopes were dashed about 3 a.m. when a police officer in a four-wheel drive vehicle left the roadway and followed a grassy path to a field where the downed plane had crashed.

The search was made more difficult by heavy fog that had blanketed the area all night.

"The time of day and location made for a needle in a haystack search," said fire Chief Brian Mohr, whose department sent five units to the scene.

Bloomington patrol officers coordinated with the city's dispatch center to pinpoint the location of the plane, using information from the Peoria airport based on its last contact with the Cessna 414A.

"We were able to compare the last known radar blips with (squad) car positions" by using the GPS in the police units, said Wheeler.

McLean County Sheriff Jon Sandage got the call at 3:15 a.m. and responded along with officers who secured the scene and coordinated services with other agencies.

Going through the sheriff's mind on his way to the scene was the name of a friend who is a local pilot. Seeing that pilot's car parked at the airport, Sandage eliminated one name from the list of possible victims, but wondered like every one else in the community, about who else may have been on the aircraft.

The job of removing the seven victims from their seats on the plane was shouldered by members of the Towanda Fire Protection District. Eleven Towanda firefighters responded with their chief, Brett Lueschen.

"The experience was definitely traumatic -- just the number of victims involved in one single incident," said Lueschen, a member of the volunteer department for 20 years.

The process of notifying family members of the deaths took most of the day. Sandage accompanied McLean County Coroner Kathy Davis on two of the visits to answer questions from victims' relatives.

"Our main concern was the families. We wanted to make sure the official notification was made by the coroner before we put any information out. That's difficult when you have seven unrelated victims and you're trying to stay ahead of news that travels fast in a community," said Sandage.

As victims' names began circulating in media reports, the coroner's office worked to positively identify pilot Tom Hileman and his passengers --Torrey Ward, Aaron Leetch, Terry Stralow, Scott Bittner, Andy Butler, and Jason Jones. The need to use dental records in some cases slowed the process, said Davis, who released the names publicly at a 5 p.m. news conference the day of the crash.

The coroner spent more than 12 hours meeting with families and talking with them on the phone.

"We wanted to give each of the families the time and attention they deserved and needed," said Davis, adding her work as a nurse practitioner in hospital emergency departments helped prepare her for the long, difficult day.

"I've had to deliver bad news, but I don't think anything can train you for such a disaster. The lives of these families have been markedly changed forever," said Davis.

The priority for first responders is the situation in front of them, but when the incident is over, the people helping others may need some help themselves. Many of the police and firefighters knew some of victims, but did their jobs without reacting to that connection, said Leuschen, who knew two people on board the plane.

"I look at it as an incident and the personal stuff comes later," said Lueschen. As a former airport authority worker and a firefighter whose district includes the airport area, he is familiar with the response to a plane crash.

To help responders deal with issues they may have had after the crash, the Towanda fire department hosted a debriefing session the next day with a counselor from a Criticial Incident Team in Champaign.

Twenty-five people from five agencies attended.

Several agencies, including the Bloomington Fire Department and the sheriff's department, are planning meetings to review their responses.

"Overall I thought it went very well for a situation we don't deal with very often," said Sandage.

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(c)2015 The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Ill.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC

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