Five family members and commercial fisherman neighbour ID’d as dead or missing in Alaska landslide

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Authorities on Friday identified those missing or killed in an Alaska landslide this week as five family members and their neighbour, a commercial fisherman who made a longshot bid for the state’s lone seat in the US House last year. Timothy Heller (44) and Beth Heller (36) — plus their children Mara (16), Derek (12) and Kara (11) — were at home Monday night when the landslide struck. Search crews found the bodies of the parents and the oldest child late Monday or early Tuesday; the younger children remain missing, as does neighbour Otto Florschutz (65), the Alaska Department of Public Safety said in an emailed statement.

Florschutz’s wife survived the landslide. Florschutz, a Republican who previously served on Wrangell’s Port Commission, entered the race to fill the congressional seat vacated when longtime US Rep Don Young died last year. He received 193 votes out of nearly 162,000 cast. In a candidate statement provided to the Anchorage Daily News back then, Florschutz said he was known for his ability to forge consensus. “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 served on the Wrangell School Board from 2019 to 2020 after several years on the district’s parent advisory committee.

The Hellers ran a construction company called Heller High Water, said Tyla Nelson, who described herself as Beth Heller’s best friend since high school. Beth and Timothy both grew up in Wrangell and married in August 2010, Nelson said. Nelson sobbed as she described her friend as a “fantastic human”. “And she was a wonderful mother,” she said. “She did everything for those babies.” The slide tore down a swath of evergreen trees from the top of the mountain above the homes to the ocean, burying a highway in the island community of Wrangell, about 155 miles (250 kilometres) south of Juneau.

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The slide — estimated to be 450 feet (137 metres) wide — occurred during rain and a windstorm. Wrangell received about two inches (five centimetres) of rain from early Monday until late evening, with wind gusts up to 96 kilometres per hour at higher elevations, said Aaron Jacobs, a National Weather Service hydrologist and meteorologist in Juneau. Around 54 homes have been cut off from town by the landslide, and roughly 35 to 45 people have chosen to stay in the area, said Mason Villarma, interim borough manager. Boats are being used to provide supplies including food, fuel, water and prescription medications.

Given the geography of the island — with the town at the northern point and houses along a 13-mile (21-kilometre) stretch of paved road — currently “the ocean is our only access to those residences”, Villarma said. Officials continued to clear debris from a roadway Friday.