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'Straight chaos': Wolverines shaken but grateful after plane mishap

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Washington, D.C. — Michigan forward D.J. Wilson was sitting in a window seat with his headphones on, ready to watch takeoff like he usually does.

Nearby a couple seats in front of an exit row, forward Zak Irvin was sleeping in another window seat.

It was supposed to be just another charter flight for the Wolverines, who were heading to the Big Ten tournament Wednesday afternoon from Ypsilanti’s Willow Run Airport a day before their second-round game against Illinois.

That is, until it wasn’t.

“We were on the runway for a little while,” forward Duncan Robinson said, “then when we started to take off, I remember thinking like, ‘Usually we’re in the air by now.’ ”

As the plane approached top speed, high winds forced it to abort takeoff.

“It felt like (the pilot) pulled up to take off and I don’t think he could pull up all the way and we just kept going,” senior guard Andrew Dakich said. “We’re like, ‘When is this going to stop?’ We just heard two bumps and then we’re still gliding and just waiting for it to stop.”

After feeling the jolt of the brakes, Wilson looked around at his teammates and realized something wasn’t right.

“It felt like we weren’t really slowing down much,” Wilson said. “I seen the fence in front of us looking out the window and seen the ditch.”

Sitting in an aisle seat, redshirt freshman center Austin Davis had no clue what was unfolding.

“We really couldn’t see anything from inside. It was really difficult to be able to see. I didn’t have a window seat and, I mean, I’m kind of happy about that,” Davis said. “You didn’t know what was going to happen at all.”

“It was just the feeling of pure helplessness, you can’t control anything. There was nothing you could do.”

The plane slid off the runway, barreled through the fence, which woke Irvin, an admittedly heavy sleeper, from his slumber, before skidding across an access road.

“Honestly, I think a ditch probably saved us,” Dakich said. “We ran into a ditch and I think that’s what helped come to a complete stop. It was, I don’t know what would’ve happened but we got really, really lucky. I know that.”

As the smell of fuel began to fill the plane after it came to a halt, everything began to sink in.

“Once it came to a stop, it was like everything clicked and we got to get out of here,” senior guard Derrick Walton Jr. said.

After shaking off the initial shock, senior center Mark Donnal quickly sprang into action to rip off one of the exit doors, while Michigan team manager Tyler Davis and Austin Davis helped release another.

“We’ve been on hundreds of flights and you never think you’re going to have to be on the exit row and have to take off the doors of plane,” Donnal said. “Honestly, it happened so quickly that I think adrenaline kind of kicked in and hope that you can get the door open.

“I wasn’t really thinking about anything else. I was just trying to get out of the plane and help everybody else that we could.”

With the engine still running, players as well as the cheerleaders, band members and staff’s families who were on board quickly began to evacuate.

“I was one of the ones that had to exit out that wing side. With the plane still running, it’s like, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ ” said Terry Mills, a color analyst for Michigan basketball. “You’ve got the plane screaming, and people exiting out of the other side, exiting out of the front and the back. It was just straight chaos.”

Walton, who suffered a gash on his knee that required stitches, dove face-first down one of the chutes. Right behind him was junior guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman and the two ran as far away from the plane as they could.

“Once I got off the plane, I kept running and I was hobbling,” Walton said. “I just felt like pain and I was thinking either submit to the pain or you keep pushing. In my mind, I’m like, we got people here that mean a lot to me. I just want to get back to those guys.

“You never know what can happen in stuff like that, so I kept running.”

All 109 passengers were able to get off the plane safely and no one was seriously injured.

While several players admitted they had trouble sleeping and a few were hesitant to fly again, the team was able to secure a charter flight Thursday morning and arrived at the Verizon Center less than two hours before tip-off against No. 9 seed Illinois. The eighth-seeded Wolverines rolled in a rout, 75-55, to advance to Friday’s quarterfinals against top-seeded Purdue.

“I’d say (Wednesday) it was a little bit difficult to even think about basketball,” Austin Davis said. “I think we all came out, got up and were thankful in the first place to be able to wake up and be here. We really had a new sense of appreciation to be able to play that game.” @jamesbhawkins