One year after tragedy, Phillips family remains close while coping


Colter Phillips is a tight end at Virginia. He is one of four sons of Bill Phillips, who lost his life in a plane crash in Alaska last year. (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)
August 8, 2011

Andrew Phillips handed the car keys to his youngest sibling, Willy, and told him to get a new shirt out of the trunk. The kid had worn North Carolina athletics apparel to a Virginia football practice, and that simply wasn’t tolerable.

They’d come to the open workout with their mother on Sunday to watch their brother, Colter, a redshirt junior tight end. And when practice was over, the trio drove just less than three miles to the Phillips family’s new home.

A year ago Tuesday, a plane crashed on a remote Alaskan mountainside, and Bill Phillips — a District lawyer, lobbyist and former Senate staffer — was among the five resulting casualties, as was former senator Ted Stevens.

Once spread across the country, Bill’s wife and three of his four sons have migrated here in an effort to move forward in a reality that grows more familiar — if not easier to deal with — by the day. For a Virginia football player, a soon-to-be-married Virginia graduate student, an eighth-grader and a mom excited to once again have to buy groceries in bulk, the next 10 months will be spent in close proximity, continuing to cope and hoping for the best.

“It will be different, but I think it will be fun because I’ll be able to see Willy and my mom almost every day if I need to, and I won’t have to drive two and a half hours to get home anymore,” said Colter, who is living in off-campus housing. “It will just be nice to be able to go home for dinner every once in a while.”


Janet Phillips says she is looking forward to buying groceries in bulk again for the three sons who live with or near her in Charlottesville. The fourth son, Paul, plays football at Indiana; his team plays Virginia on Sept. 10. (Ricky Carioti/WASHINGTON POST)

This time last year, the family was based in Darnestown. Andrew was preparing for his senior season as a starting offensive lineman at Stanford. Paul, the third-youngest Phillips boy, was a freshman tight end at Indiana. And Colter had just checked in at Cavalier Inn, the hotel at which the Virginia football players stay during training camp.

Back then, Cavalier Inn didn’t hold much significance for Colter. When the Virginia players moved into their rooms for this season’s training camp Thursday, though, the whole environment had changed in Colter’s mind. There seemed no escape from the reminders of the day he lost his father.

“It’s been tough living in the Cav Inn,” Colter said. “That’s where I got the call that there was a crash. The first couple of days were definitely tough. . . .The whole camp experience, it’s bringing back a lot of bad memories. But at the same time, I’m building some new memories here, and I’m really fortunate to have such great family and friends around.”

While training for the NFL draft in March, Andrew applied to the one-year graduate program at Virginia’s McIntire School of Commerce. He’d been advised — given the lockout that had halted NFL operations — to have a backup plan in case he was not drafted. And without offseason workouts at which he could make an impression, his chances of making an NFL roster as an undrafted free agent were slim.

Andrew, who wasn’t drafted, waited until July — on the day the first tuition payment at Virginia was due — to give up football and enroll in the commerce program. Washington, Buffalo and St. Louis invited him to their training camps. Andrew turned them down.

“I’m very comfortable with what happened,” Andrew said. “In any other normal year I would have liked to at least go to camp and get cut and do it the old-fashioned way. But things changed.”

Now Andrew is back to living at home, though the address has changed. On June 1, the Phillipses moved into the two-story brick house they’re renting near the Boar’s Head golf course on the western part of town. Andrew isn’t sure if his mom, Janet, plans to charge him rent. He’s hoping not, considering he’s getting married next July.

During his free time, Andrew plans to help coach football at St. Anne’s Belfield School, where Willy will begin taking eighth-grade classes at the end of the month. Willy was with his father when the plane crashed, and his body continues to heal. He can walk, bicycle and swim, but his injured left foot still prevents him from running.

Willy said having two of his brothers around should ease the transition to a new home. And Janet knows it will affect her grocery bill, too.

“When they first all disappeared [to college] I would still cook for 15 people, so I had just learned to start cooking properly,” Janet said. “And so now I’m going to go back to shopping at Costco. Or I guess it will have to be Sam’s Club down here. I think that will be a really exciting part, is having Colt and his teammates and Andrew and Willy. It will be just like the old days.”

Or as close to them as the family can get. Janet’s two horses are being moved in two weeks from Maryland to a barn five miles away. She said she’s going to start playing tennis again. She will also make some trips to Indiana, where Paul is entering his redshirt freshman season. (The Hoosiers host Virginia on Sept. 10.)

As Janet sat in the living room of her new home Sunday evening, with Andrew lounging on a couch nearby and Willy on his cellphone in another room, she mentioned a mural at the downtown mall she’d heard about. Apparently, she said, it features several Virginia football players, and Colter is one of them.

“We have to go check it out, but I’m not sure how to get to the downtown mall,” Janet said. “Are you?”

“I think,” Andrew replied. “Just go to The Corner and take a left, I guess.”

“We’ve got to find that stuff out,” Janet said. “I know how to get to the school and the barn and the stadium. What more do I need to know?”

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