Three Killed, Two Children Missing in Tragic Alaska Landslide

Five members of the same family and their neighbor, a commercial fisherman who ran a close campaign last year for Alaska’s only U.S. House seat, were found missing or killed in a landslide in southeast Alaska on Friday.

The landslide happened near the island town of Wrangell on Monday night. Timothy Heller, 44, and Beth Heller, 36, were home with their three kids, Mara, 16, Derek, 12, and Kara, 11.

The bodies of the parents and the oldest child were found late Monday night or early Tuesday morning. The Alaska Department of Public Safety said in an email that the younger children and 65-year-old neighbor Otto Florschutz are still missing.

Florschutz’s wife was saved.

Alaskan authorities on Friday identified those missing or killed in a landslide as five family members and their neighbor, a fisherman who made a longshot bid for the state’s seat in the U.S. House last year. The neighbor’s wife survived the landslide:

Florschutz, a Republican who used to work on Wrangell’s Port Commission, was one of 48 people who ran to fill the congressional seat that longtime U.S. Rep. Don Young left when he died last year. Out of the almost 162,000 votes that were cast, 193 were for him.

Back then, Florschutz told the Anchorage Daily News in a campaign statement that he was known for being able to bring people together.

“As a 42-year commercial fisherman I have worn many hats,” he said. “Besides catching fish, I have served in community elected positions, done boat repair, mechanics, welding, carpentry, business and much more.”

Beth Heller was on the Wrangell School Board from 2019 to 2020. Before that, she was on the parent advisory group for the board for a few years.

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Tyra Nelson, who has been Beth Heller’s best friend since high school, said that the Hellers ran a construction company called Heller High Water. Beth and Timothy met and got married in August 2010. They both grew up in Wrangell.

Nelson cried as she called her friend a “fantastic human.”

“And she was a wonderful mother,” she said. “She did everything for those babies.”

In an email sent Friday, Bill Burr, the superintendent of the Wrangell School District, said that counseling would be open for kids and staff on Monday, when school starts up again after Thanksgiving.

“The loss of even one child is a very difficult time, and having an entire family with three students is devastating,” Burr wrote.

A line of evergreen trees fell from the top of the mountain above the community to the water. Three homes were damaged, and a highway was buried near the island town of Wrangell, which is about 155 miles south of Juneau. Not anyone was living in one of the houses.

The slide, which was about 450 feet wide, happened when it was raining hard and windy. Aaron Jacobs, a hydrologist and meteorologist for the National Weather Service in Juneau, said that Wrangell got about two inches of rain from early Monday morning until late Monday night. At higher peaks, the wind gusted up to 60 mph.

About 54 homes were cut off from town by the fall. Mason Villarma, the interim borough manager, said that about 35 to 45 people have decided to stay in the area. Boats are being used to bring in goods like food, fuel, water, and prescription drugs.

Geographically, the town is at the northernmost point of the island, and homes are along a 13-mile paved road. Right now, “the ocean is our only access to those residences,” Villarma said.

Highway debris was still being cleared by officials on Friday.

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