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The Mourning After OSU Deep in Grief, A Year After Crash

By William Gildea,

STILLWATER, Okla. — Historic and modern, Gallagher-Iba Arena is one of America’s classic college basketball venues, where rows of orange seats sweep high and steep above the original white maple wood court of 1938. Echoing a time when Ed Gallagher was nationally renowned as a wrestling coach and Henry Iba equally so in basketball, it is home to college basketball’s 11th-ranked Cowboys, a shrine to athletic achievement and, for the past year, a place of remembrance in an unexpected, overwhelmingly sad way.

In the south lobby, a place is being prepared for a memorial to be dedicated next month. The centerpiece will be a bronze statue of a bereaved cowboy, on one knee, hat in hand, head bowed. No one noticing that figure will forget the 10 men connected with the Oklahoma State basketball program who died in the crash of a small plane one year ago Sunday. Two players. A trainer. A student manager. A coordinator of media relations. An administrative assistant. A play-by-play broadcaster. The broadcast engineer. The pilot. The co-pilot. They were returning from a game at Colorado when the aircraft, one of three small planes used by the Cowboys, plunged into a snow-covered field shortly after takeoff.

“I was at home, watching TV. I had a cable channel on,” said Karen Hancock, Oklahoma State’s women’s soccer coach and wife of Will Hancock, the media relations coordinator who was on the plane. “My sister called, and she said, ‘Have you watched the news? They say a plane is missing off the radar, from Colorado to Oklahoma.’ My heart kind of sank. Then I had the feeling, what’s the chance? I flipped on the local news. I tried to call Will on his cell phone. No answer. Then I received a call from a Denver news station to ask about the crash. I said, ‘All I know is Will has not come home yet and he was supposed to be back an hour ago.’

“I called Coach [Eddie] Sutton’s home. He was at the office. I called there. You could tell there was chaos. Eddie eventually got on the phone. He told me, ‘Karen I don’t know how to tell you, but Will was on that plane.’ “

Life has not been the same, for the families, the friends, the colleagues of the victims. The mood on campus abruptly changed on Jan. 27, 2001, and students and administrators still are affected by thoughts of the crash and the lost ones. In the small brick building where Karen Hancock was having season-ending meetings with her soccer players, a 14-month-old girl toddled across an adjoining office: It was Andie Hancock, the daughter of Karen and Will — she was 2 1/2 months old when her father died.

On Monday, Sutton and Cowboys players held a news conference to discuss the tragedy.

“I broke down crying some nights because I lost my best friend, my roommate, Dan,” junior forward Andre Williams said of Daniel Lawson, a junior guard who died in the crash. “He was the first person I met when I came to college. I just look back at the good times . . .”

Sutton wears a pin, the number 10. For the first few days after the crash, he said he wasn’t sure he and the team could finish the season.

“There’s not a day that something doesn’t remind me of one of them,” he said. “It could be a picture in my office, or a telephone call or, sometimes, just when I walk in Gallagher-Iba . . .”

The mood still can be as bleak as it was the Sunday after the crash. That cold day, as a soaking rain fell, a freshman named Justin Battista was walking toward church when encountered by a reporter. The student explained: “It’s like a part of the school died.”

Darkness and Light “It’s been more difficult than I ever imagined, if I ever could have imagined such a thing,” said Bill Hancock, Will’s father. Hancock is director of the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament. He and his son shared a love of the college game. Ten days before the accident, Bill Hancock had a dream in which his son died in a crash.

“I called him and talked to him the next day,” the father said. “During the basketball season, we both get busy and sometimes don’t get to talk to each other as much as we usually do. That dream made me call Will. I didn’t tell him about it. We just talked. That was a remarkable gift I got. I see it as God preparing me and having me call Will.”

Like Karen’s, Bill’s phone rang that fateful night. From the bedroom, he and his wife Nicki could hear the voice of his mother-in-law on the answering machine: “Will’s plane has crashed.”

“We fell apart,” Bill Hancock said.

He called State’s media relations director Steve Buzzard. He remembers Buzzard saying, “Bill, yes, I don’t know what to say.”

Will was 31 at the time of his death. Bill told Will’s younger brother Nate in “the worst phone call I ever made.”

Family, friends, faith -- the Hancocks have needed them all, he said. An outpouring of condolences has helped. Last summer, he rode a bike across the United States for 34 days, from Los Angeles to Savannah, Ga.; that helped. So has conversation with others who have known great heartache. “There’s more people on our side of the fence,” he said, “than we sometimes think there are, those who have had some kind of tragedy in their lives.

“We’ll never be the same. We’re struggling still. [But his grandchild] is the joy of our lives, she and her mother. Karen is a strong person.”

“I think I will have moments of grief for the rest of my life,” Karen Hancock said. “There are some good times. I’m healthier today than I was for the first six months after the crash.” But she said that it has been a struggle for her to maintain “a constant acceptance of what happened . . . sometimes just to get through the day, sometimes just to get through the hour.

“You expected to see a loved one come home that night, and he didn’t. For a while I couldn’t do anything. I was in a survival mode.” Now, she said, “When darkness seems to shroud me, light comes back again.”

The two had met in the early 1990s at Arkansas Little Rock. When she was offered the coaching job at Oklahoma State, Will was working in Indiana. “I was thinking of going to Indiana and looking for a job there,” she said. “We discussed what we wanted to do. We decided Oklahoma was near relatives. It was a good place to raise a family. Then the job opened for him.

“Will and I were looking forward to having kids here and raising kids here. We thought we had it perfect.”

Bells Toll for Thee In November, separate lawsuits were filed by the families of five of those killed in the crash, including the Hancocks, against the company that owned the plane and the estate of the pilot. Bill Hancock said that the “primary purpose” of the suit his family brought is to obtain information that would aid in determining the cause of the crash and preventing similar accidents in the future. In the aftermath of the crash, relatives and friends of some of the victims expressed concern over use of a 1976 propeller plane, the third plane in Oklahoma State’s traveling party that included a 1995 jet and a 2000 jet.

Also, the report of a task force set up by Oklahoma State President James Halligan to recommend ways to transport athletic teams, including those from schools in rural areas such as Stillwater, is expected in March or April. A report from the National Transportation Safety Board also is expected this spring.

Twice this season, Oklahoma State has used a 32-seat charter plane to get to and from games instead of smaller planes. On Monday, the school said it planned to use the bigger plane for the rest of this season.

On Saturday, a moment of silence will be observed at the Oklahoma State-Colorado game in the Gallagher-Iba Arena. Church bells in town and on campus will sound 10 times Sunday the moment the crash occurred. The statue of the cowboy and an accompanying commemoration of each of the 10 will be dedicated Feb. 23. The principal inscription: “We Will Remember.”

The idea that others will remember will help her as she marks this Sunday and Feb. 23, Karen Hancock said.

“It’s going to be hard, just sad,” she said. “Part of me wants the dedication to be an uplifting occasion. But there’s no way to get around the sadness of it. It’s going to be a hard thing to do. But it would be more painful for all the families if they did nothing.”

“Our fears are real that these great guys -- Will, the greatest guy I ever knew -- will be forgotten. It’s a huge fear. But the longer I’m around this, I don’t think that will be the case.”

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