The Oklahoma State University women's basketball coach and his assistant were killed when the single-engine plane transporting them on a recruiting trip crashed in steep terrain in Arkansas, the university said Friday.
Kurt Budke and Miranda Serna died in the accident Thursday afternoon in the Winona Wildlife Management Area near Perryville, about 45 miles west of Little Rock.
The pilot, 82-year-old former Oklahoma state Sen. Olin Branstetter, and his 79-year-old wife, Paula, also died when the plane spiraled out of control and nosedived into the forest.
There were no survivors.
“This is our worst nightmare. The entire OSU family is very close, very close indeed,” OSU President Burns Hargis said at a news conference. “To lose anyone, especially these two individuals who are incredible life forces in our family, it is worse beyond words.”
The crash is the second major tragedy for the sports program in about a decade. In January 2001, 10 men affiliated with the university's men's basketball team died in a Colorado plane crash.
“When something like this happens and, God forbid it happened again, we have to pull together as a family. We've got to try to do that,” Hargis said, as he broke down in tears.
After the 2001 crash, the university required that planes used by the school's sports team undergo safety checks before travel. Hargis said coaches were not bound by the same rules and that the school left such decisions to their discretion.
Hargis called Budke “an exemplary leader and man of character,” and credited him with elevating the team in a tough program. Serna, he said, was “an up-and-coming coach and an outstanding role model” for the players. Former Assistant Coach Jim Littell will serve as interim head coach.
Perry County Sheriff Scott Montgomery said hunters called emergency officials about 4 p.m. Thursday after they heard the plane apparently in trouble, then saw it nosedive into a heavily wooded area.
“The plane was spitting and sputtering and then it spiraled and went nose first into the ground,” Montgomery said.
“It went straight into the side of the hill,” he said.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it was sending investigators, and that it could take nine months to determine the cause of the crash.
FAA records showed that the plane was built in 1964 and registered to Branstetter.
On Jan. 27, 2001, a Beechcraft King Air 200 carrying players and others connected to the OSU men's basketball team crashed in a field 40 miles east of Denver as the Cowboys returned from a game at Colorado. The crash occurred about 35 minutes after the plane took off in light snow.
An NTSB report cited a power loss aboard the plane and said the pilot suffered disorientation while flying the plane manually with still-available instruments.
The weather near the crash site Thursday was clear with temperatures in the upper 30s to mid-40s.
The university hired Salina, Kan., native Budke from Louisiana Tech seven years ago and the coach compiled a 112-83 record at the school. This year's team was 1-0 after defeating Rice on Sunday.
Budke coached Serna and Trinity Valley to a junior college national title in 1996. Serna went on to play for Houston before returning to the community college to become an assistant coach under Budke. He kept Serna on his staff when he went to Louisiana Tech and Oklahoma State. She was the recruiting coordinator for the Cowgirls.
On Friday, Oklahoma State said it was canceling its women's college basketball home games set for Saturday and Sunday. The school's second-ranked college football team plays Friday night at Iowa State.
The head coach of Baylor, Kim Mulkey, said the deaths would have a wide impact.
“There's a bigger picture out there and it's not a basketball game, it puts life in perspective.” Mulkey said. “I feel for the Oklahoma State community. How many more tragedies can they endure?”
After the news conference, tearful Oklahoma State staff members and supporters comforted each other in the hallway of Heritage Hall. A banner was laid out for students and faculty to sign with messages for Budke, 50, and Serna, 36.
Former Cowgirl Taylor Hardeman left a message: “I will never forget how much better you made me as a person, player and alum. Thanks for the memories. God bless you both. You will be missed.”
Outside the gym, a bouquet of orange daisies and two large orange flowers were left near the statue of a kneeling Cowboy, part of the memorial to those lost in the 2001 crash. OSU Director of Communications Gary Shutt said a memorial was being planned for Monday.
“I don't know a lot about what happened or about how it happened, but I know they are gone,” Hargis said. “But I know they're here in our hearts.”
Associated Press photographers Sue Ogrocki in Stillwater and Danny Johnston in Perryville, Ark.; writers Justin Juozapavicius in Tulsa, Okla. and Ken Miller and Sean Murphy in Oklahoma City contributed to this report.