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Published July 21, 2024

Plane crash kills Sen. Paul Wellstone and seven others

E By Adam Fink and Andrew Pritchard

eVELETH, Minn. – U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., died Friday in a plane crash in Northeastern Minnesota along with his wife Sheila, daughter Marcia, three campaign workers and two pilots.

The plane crashed near Eveleth, Minn., during its final descent for Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport at approximately 10:20 a.m., two miles southeast of the airport.

The plane’s last radio contact came when the craft was seven miles from the airport.

Assistant airport manager Gary Ulmen was working at the Eveleth airport when he received a call from Duluth aviators inquiring whether Wellstone’s plane had landed.

Ulmen reported he didn’t see it on the ground and took a plane into the air to retrace the King Air twin-engine turboprop’s last known location.

Unable to find any evidence of the craft, Ulmen reported the plane missing and began veering off course for a search and rescue until he noticed smoke coming from a wooded, swampy area southeast of the airport.

“The back end of the plane was ripped apart,” Ulmen said. “There was a huge fire in the main section and a smaller fire near the front of the wreckage.

“There was no way anyone could survive,” he said.

Ulmen said the wreckage was contained to an area of approximately 100 feet long by 50 to 60 feet wide.

St. Louis County Sheriff Rick Wahlberg added that the wreckage was confined to a compact area. The fuselage was intact, he said, but the wings had broken off, the tail section was missing, and the plane sustained considerable fire damage.

Local police and fire authorities were notified within minutes. The FBI was on the scene in the afternoon before handing the investigation over to the National Transportation Safety Board in the evening.

Wahlberg said the first report of a possible plane crash was received shortly before 11 a.m.

Wahlberg said he did not know of any distress signal from the plane.

By 5 p.m., the state’s Bureau of Criminal Apprehension, Department of Public Safety and State Patrol were on the scene.

Special Agent Paul McCabe said the FBI’s evidence response team would aid the safety board’s investigation.

McCabe said the FBI’s presence was part of normal procedures and the safety board is the lead investigating agency.

“There is no indication, nor is there any intelligence information, that would indicate the crash of Senator Wellstone’s plane was in any way an act of terrorism,” he said.

Thirteen members of the 15-person investigation team would be from the safety board, McCabe said.

Wahlberg said approximately 35 officers were currently securing the crash site and that 30 to 40 rescue personnel were also on site.

“It’s a typical wooded area of Northeast Minnesota,” he said.

Rescuers used all-terrain and track vehicles to get through the wooded area where the plane crashed.

“The approach to get into there is very swampy,” the sheriff said.

Wellstone was traveling to attend the funeral of Frank Rukavina, father of state Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia.

Campaign staffers Tom Lapic, Mary McEvoy and Will McLaughlin, as well as Twin Cities-area pilots Richard Conroy and Michael Guess, were also killed in the crash.

The airport was closed to incoming and outgoing air traffic by early evening.

Weather conditions

investigators were hesitant to speculate on how the weather conditions affected Wellstone’s plane.

At the time of the crash, the temperature was 31 degrees with a visibility of 2 miles. There was also heavy cloud cover with light rain. Investigators reported all weather conditions were within Federal Aviation Administration regulations for allowing a plane to land.

But private pilot Dan Sipala said conditions for icing on the engines and limited visibility likely played a major part in the cause of the crash.

Sipala frequently flies to Minneapolis from his Northeastern Minnesota residence.

“The main concern is how the weather affected the engines,” Sipala said. “These conditions usually produce icing on the engines. I was supposed to fly out of here (Friday) afternoon and I canceled my flight because the conditions were too unpredictable.”

Sipala said the main question is why Wellstone’s plane crashed where it did.

Runway 2-7, which was the intended landing point for the plane, runs from east to west.

Wellstone’s plane crashed to the southeast of the runway, leaving two likely explanations, he said.

“Either the plane had a drastic malfunction causing it to veer way off course during its landing,” Sipala said, or the pilot didn’t see the runway, pulled up and tried to circle around for another attempt.

In March 1996, the FAA reported and logged that two of the condition levers on Wellstone’s plane were worn through approximately 50 percent. The FAA required more frequent inspections.

Drake Hokanson, a certified pilot of 25 years, said: “If it’s written in the maintenance logs, it’s been checked and changed. (FAA-logged problems) are seldom the cause of an accident.”

This year, Wellstone was running a close, nationally-watched campaign against the Republican former mayor of St. Paul, Norm Coleman. The White House has supported his campaign in an effort to gain the one seat needed for a Republican majority in the Senate.

Wellstone is survived by his sons David and Mark and grandchildren Cari, Keith, Joshua, Acacia, Sydney and Matt.

Supporters and opponents remembered Wellstone on Friday as a principled leader who voted his conscience regardless of party ties or popular opinion.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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