The Michigan men’s basketball team’s trip to the Big Ten Tournament in Washington, D.C., was jeopardized Wednesday when the team plane slid off the runway during takeoff at Willow Run Airport. The program confirmed in a statement that there were no significant injuries.
The team immediately got off the plane and spent the evening searching for an alternate travel plan. Around 10:30 Wednesday night, the program’s official Twitter account announced its new schedule: The Wolverines will now meet at Crisler at 6 a.m. Thursday, take a bus to Metro Airport, depart at 7:30, arrive in Washington at 8:45 and take a bus straight to the Verizon Center for a noon tip-off against Illinois.
The schedule is a difficult way to start the tournament. If Michigan beats the Fighting Illini after a draining trip, it will play a well-rested Purdue team Friday at noon in the quarterfinals. Earlier Wednesday evening, a Big Ten official said that the conference would wait to see Michigan’s new itinerary to make a decision about changing the game time. The other three second-round games are on the schedule for the rest of the day at the Verizon Center.
The Daily confirmed Wednesday night that the airport tower suffered a power outage — gusty winds affected the Ann Arbor area all day — but that the third-party dispatch still cleared for departure.
“After attempting to take off in high winds, takeoff was aborted and, after strong braking, the plane slide off (sic) runway,” a team spokesman said in a statement. “The plane sustained extensive damage but everyone on board was safely evacuated and is safe.”
Erica Donerson, manager of media relations of Wayne County Airport Authority, also confirmed and gave specifics about the incident in an email statement.
“Shortly before 3 p.m. today, a charter flight aborted takeoff at Willow Run Airport and went off the end of Runway 23L,” Donerson wrote. “The Airport Authority Public Safety and Operations teams responded. There were no injuries to the seven crew members and 109 passengers, including members of the University of Michigan men’s basketball team. The MD83 was operated by Ameristar Charters. As a result of this incident, Willow Run Airport remains closed at this time.”
At that time, in an interview with WXYZ-TV, Michigan coach John Beilein expressed in an interview his belief that flying Thursday is the right idea.
“Right now, I think the best decision is to wait until tomorrow and just get up early and go,” Beilein said. “I do not think it’s wise, with this wind, with our players where they are right now, our students, our staff, our cheerleaders, our band, probably not a good idea to go up again today.”
Several of the players, coaches, staff and other passengers tweeted positive notes afterward, including radio broadcaster Matt Shepard, who confirmed everyone was safe.
Recovering mentally and physically in time for the game, meanwhile, is a different story.
“It puts so much in perspective right now that everybody’s safe,” Beilein told WXYZ-TV. “We have a few people banged up a little bit, a few cuts, a few bruises, but other than that, everybody’s healthy, and it could have been much worse. The way the flight attendants, the pilots, the student-athletes, the students, the staff, conducted themselves was incredible. We were off that plane, going down those chutes, getting up on the wings, getting out of there. In a minute, it seemed like everybody got off that plane.”
According to other reports, the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are still investigating the wreck, including some of the team’s gear that is still on board. The coaches and players returned to Crisler Center after the accident and will now be pressed to make it to Washington before tip-off.
Still, those inside the program are grateful the damage was not worse.
“It’s only an airplane that was destroyed,” Beilein said. “No lives were destroyed in that. We gotta put things in perspective, and that game tomorrow has still a lot of meaning, but certainly our kids will look at it a lot differently, look at life a lot differently, after what we just experienced.”