A small plane carrying Oklahoma State University's women's basketball coach and his assistant plummeted into the mountains of central Arkansas on Thursday, killing them in the second deadly air accident involving the university's athletic program in recent years. Also killed were the pilot, who is a former state senator, and the pilot's wife.
Coach Kurt Budke, 50, and his assistant, Miranda Serna, 36, were heading to Little Rock for a recruiting trip Thursday. The single-engine plane flown by former state Sen. Olin Branstetter, 82, crashed at 4:30 p.m. about 45 miles northwest of Little Rock in the Ouachita National Forest's Winona Wildlife Management Area. Branstetter's wife, Paula, 79, also was on the plane.
A deer hunter saw the plane shortly before the accident.
“He was having problems,” Barry Rankin said.
“I thought he was flying fairly low and then I heard heavy throttling, and I thought he was trying to gain altitude.
“I could hear heavier and heavier throttling. I actually looked back because I thought that it was going to come over the ridge on top of me. I heard the torquing of the engine, and then there was just a big crash and a shock wave that went through the valley.”
OSU President Burns Hargis struggled with his emotions when he discussed the crash at a news conference Friday.
“The Oklahoma State family is devastated by this tragedy,” Hargis said.
“Our hearts and prayers go out to the families of Kurt Budke, Miranda Serna and the other victims.”
The Branstetters also were prominent members of the OSU family, having both endowed academic scholarships.
The accident came just two months shy of the anniversary of the Jan. 27, 2001, plane crash in Colorado that killed 10 people affiliated with the men's basketball program.
“Those comparisons and reflections will obviously come up,” Hargis said.
“We pulled together then. It was a very hard time, but under the leadership of Jim Halligan and coach (Eddie) Sutton, somehow we all made it to the other side without ever forgetting. We'll always remember, and we'll always remember Kurt and Miranda.”
Gov. Mary Fallin announced Friday that flags at state buildings will fly at half staff Monday in remembrance of the victims.
A memorial service was set for 1 p.m. Monday at Gallagher-Iba Arena on the OSU campus in Stillwater.
The Federal Aviation Administration was investigating the crash, along with the National Transportation Safety Board.
The FAA said the plane crashed under unknown circumstances and that no flight plan was filed, nor was one required. NTSB officials said the investigation was in its preliminary stages.
The single-engine Piper PA-28-180 Cherokee aircraft, manufactured in 1964, crashed into a mountainside near Perryville, which is about 12 minutes by air from the Little Rock airport and is in a dense forest, said Larry Miller, Petit Jean County Headlight front page editor.
Rankin, the Little Rock businessman who was hunting in the area, said he used a GPS device to guide an Arkansas State Police helicopter to the crash scene, but the remote location and thick forest obscured the crash site from the chopper until officials finally found it nearly two hours later.
The plane's nose plowed into the top of a steep ridge, creating a five-foot crater, said Mike Surrett, chief deputy criminal investigator at the Perry County Sheriff's Department.
“It's just a terrible, terrible tragedy. Everybody down there has our prayers,” Surrett said.
Branstetter was a longtime pilot. The plane that crashed appeared to be the same one he used in a well-publicized flight to the North Pole in 1984.
Branstetter was elected as a Republican state senator in 1986 and served through 1990.
OSU changed policy
The university adopted an 11-page travel policy after the 2001 crash in Colorado. The policy placed restrictions on the types of aircraft that can be used and pilot qualifications that are required, but school officials said Friday the policy doesn't apply to coaches' recruiting trips when no student-athletes are on board.
In the 2001 crash, a twin-engine Beechcraft King Air 200 crashed in a field east of Denver about half an hour after taking off amid light snow. Investigators concluded the pilot was disoriented, and the plane suffered a loss of power.
A campus mourns
Budke and Serna led a dramatic turnaround of the Cowgirls' fortunes, turning a cellar-dwelling program into a conference title contender and NCAA Tournament participant.
Megan Byford, who played for Budke and Serna for three years, said her coaches made an impact on her life and her teammates'.
“He really cared about his players,” she said.
“God was first, family was second and basketball was third. He had his priorities in line. I will always be grateful to him for the opportunities that he gave me. There are a lot of girls that feel the same way. He just gave us an opportunity to have an amazing experience and to learn so much not only about basketball, but about life.”
Byford said Serna was one of the most kindhearted women that she'd ever met in her life.
“She would do anything for any of us players,” Byford said. “She would bend over backward for you. She just loved life. She brought so much energy every day to practice.”
Friends and colleagues of the victims, along with students, fans and other members of the OSU community, gathered in the east lobby of Gallagher-Iba Arena, where the Cowgirls play their home games.
Flowers, balloons, other mementos and photos of the coaches accompanied large banners signed throughout the day by mourners.
Trevor Nutter, a junior at OSU, said he met both coaches two or three times. Nutter works for Cowboy Dining, a food service company that occasionally serves the basketball teams.
Serna was “someone you would want to aspire to be,” Nutter said. “Coach Budke was just a real high-class gentleman. You don't have to be on campus to know that it's pretty painful.”
Stan Warfield, a retired pastor at First United Methodist Church in Stillwater who signed one of the banners, was also among the people who knew both coaches. He recalled the strong faith both coaches had, along with their friendliness and kindness.
“Coach Budke never met a stranger,” Warfield said.
A Salina, Kan., native, Budke is survived by his wife, Shelley. They have three children: Sara, who is a student at OSU, Alex and Brett.
Serna was a native of Guadalupita, N.M., and is survived by her mother, Nettie Hererra; father, John Serna, and sister, Cassandra.