The president of Oklahoma State University seemed close to tears today as he called the deaths of women's basketball coach Kurt Budke and assistant coach Miranda Serna "our worst nightmare."
Budke and Serna, who had both coached the OSU Cowgirls for seven years, died when their plane crashed over the Ouachita National Forest, four miles from Perryville, Ark., on their way to recruit players in Little Rock. The pilots, former Oklahoma State Sen. Olin Branstetter and his wife, Paula Branstetter, also died in the crash.
"The entire OSU family is very close … to lose anyone, and especially these two individuals who were incredible life forces in our family, is worse beyond words," said OSU President Burns Hargis.
Hunters called 911 when they saw a plane go down Thursday around 4 p.m., OSU Director of Communications Gary Schutt said today.
The U.S. Forest Service and the Perry County Sheriff's Department were first on the scene. OSU was notified about the deaths around 1:30 a.m. today.
A spokesperson for the Perry County Sheriff's Department told ABCNews.com, "There were some campers who heard sputtering of the plane, and there was one witness who said she saw it spiraling nose down but didn't see it hit the ground."
The plane was identified by the Federal Aviation Administration as a single engine Piper PA-28-180. According to FAA records, it was owned by the Branstetters and manufactured in 1964.
The National Transportation Safety Board told The Associated Press that deterimining the cause of the crash could take as long as nine months.
Today assistant head coach Jim Littell, who will now become interim head coach, spoke briefly about Budke's "zeal for Oklahoma State.
"He loved this place, he loved coming in here every day. What a team player. Everybody here loved the man. He was far more than a basketball coach – talk about a loving husband, a tremendous dad. We would sit around and brag about our kids and how much we love our kids and watching them grow up in a good community," said Littell.
During today's emotional news conference, Hargis said the school is making plans for a Monday memorial service.
"Absolute devastation is what this is," said Hargis. "There's just no way to describe it. … Right now it's a lot of hugs and a lot of tears."
In January 2001, 10 men affiliated with the university's men's basketball team died in a Colorado plane crash, an accident that Hargis said they would never forget.
"Comparisons and reflections will obviously come up. ... We pulled together then. It was a very hard time … and we somehow all made it to the other side," Hargis said. "You don't forget. Remembering is part of the whole process … and receiving inspiration from their lives."
Hargis, who teared up at several points throughout the press conference, said Serna, who was from New Mexico, was the first person in her family to attend college. Littell called her a "tireless worker."
The school credits Budke with putting Cowgirl basketball on the map and turning the women's basketball program around.
"I've always said coaching is a lot more about psychology than it is about the nuts and bolts of the particular sport. Our coaches, coaches everywhere guide their students in developing the life skills that they need to be successful in life," Hargis said. "Perseverance, hard work, practice, all the dedication that's required. I no of no one who did that better than Kurt."
Budke, who had previously coached at Louisiana Tech, compiled a 112-83 record at OSU. He is survived by his wife, Shelley, and their children: Sara, who is a student at OSU, Alex and Brett.
Two Cowgirl home games and two OSU wrestling matches scheduled for this weekend have been canceled, and the school has brought in therapists to speak with anyone on campus who needs help.
"Our kids [players] are totally devastated," said Littell.