- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 26, 2002

EVELETH, Minn. Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone was killed in a plane crash in northern Minnesota yesterday along with his wife, daughter and five others.

The twin-engine private plane went down about 10 a.m. in freezing rain and light snow near the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport, about 175 miles north of Minneapolis. A pilot in the area said the plane seemed to have veered away from the standard approach to the airport.

The wreckage was still smoldering several hours after the crash in a wooded, swampy area two miles from the airport. The National Transportation Safety Board sent a nine-member team to determine the cause of the accident.

The tragedy comes almost exactly two years after Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan was killed in a plane crash as he campaigned for the Senate.

Mr. Wellstone, a 58-year-old former college professor and one of the foremost liberals on Capitol Hill, was on his way to the funeral of the father of a state lawmaker.

"It's just terrible. Say a prayer," said Lisa Pattni, an aide at the crash site.

The death brought an outpouring of grief from supporters and opponents alike.

In St. Paul, thousands of mourners stood in a cold rain to pay tribute at the Capitol and outside the senator's headquarters. Many wept.

"It doesn't seem real," said Tom Collins, who had done volunteer work for the Wellstone campaign. "It's a nightmare."

All eight persons aboard the 11-seat King Air A-100 were killed, said Greg Martin, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. Campaign officials confirmed the victims included Mr. Wellstone's wife, Sheila, 58, and daughter, Marcia, 33; three campaign staff members; and two pilots.

The last senator to die in office was Paul Coverdell, a 61-year-old Georgia Republican who died of a stroke two years ago.

"Today the state of Minnesota has suffered a deep and penetrating loss," Gov. Jesse Ventura said. "With all of us suffering from the numbing experiences of our nation's recent tragedies, this loss seems especially cruel."

Mr. Wellstone's death threw the battle for the Senate into uncharted territory. Before yesterday, Democrats held control of the chamber by a single seat.

Two years ago, Mr. Carnahan, his son and an aide were killed in a crash three weeks before Election Day. His name remained on the ballot and he beat Republican Sen. John Ashcroft. Mr. Carnahan's widow, Jean, was appointed to serve in his place and is now seeking a full term against Republican ex-Rep. Jim Talent.

Mr. Wellstone was up against Republican Norm Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul and President Bush's choice to challenge the two-term incumbent.

Mr. Wellstone was flying to nearby Virginia to attend the funeral of Martin Rukavina, father of state Sen. Tom Rukavina. Mr. Wellstone had leased the King Air turboprop owned by Beech Transportation Inc. of Eden Prairie.

The pilots called the Eveleth-Virginia Airport to get clearance for landing when they were about seven miles out and they reported no problems, said Gary Ulman, who was on duty at the airport at the time.

When the plane didn't land, Mr. Ulman said, he took off in another plane to search for it. He soon saw smoke.

"The wreckage was scattered and fully engulfed in flames," Mr. Ulman said. "Just looking at it, it would take a miracle to survive it."

Another pilot, Don Sipola, said visibility in the area at the time was 2½ miles, well above the one-mile minimum for a standard instrument landing. But he said the crash site was south of the normal approach path, so the plane must have deviated "for unknown and unexplained reasons."

At the site, FBI spokesman Paul McCabe said there was no indication the crash was related to terrorism. He also said it may take time to recover the bodies.

Mr. Ventura said flags at state buildings would be flown at half-staff through Nov. 5. In Texas, Mr. Bush called Mr. Wellstone "a man of deep convictions."

"He was a plainspoken fellow who did his best for his state and for his country," the president said. "May the good Lord bless those who grieve."

Before running for office, Mr. Wellstone was a professor and community organizer who fused the two passions in a course he taught at Carleton College in Northfield called "Social Movements and Grassroots Organizing."

He stunned the political establishment by upsetting Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz in 1990. Afterward, left-leaning Mother Jones magazine called him "the first 1960s radical elected to the U.S. Senate."

Mr. Wellstone had pledged to stay for no more than two terms, but last year announced he would be running again. In February, he said he had been diagnosed with a mild form of multiple sclerosis, but that it wouldn't stop his campaign.

"For me, no stress would be stress," Mr. Wellstone said at the time. "The stress of this campaign is what I want to do, to be perfectly honest. And the stress of being a senator is what I want to do."

State Democratic Party Chairman Mike Erlandson said Mr. Wellstone for years had been "the heartbeat" of the party.

"He took pride every day in fighting on behalf of the people of Minnesota," he said.

Mr. Wellstone also took a special interest in the nation's poor, embarking on a "children's tour" in 1997 to focus attention on the need for social programs. He started in Mississippi, retracing a visit Robert F. Kennedy made to the poverty-stricken region in 1967, went through Appalachia and on to Chicago.

Mr. Wellstone said he wanted "to observe the face of American poverty not from behind a Senate desk, but in the streets, the villages and neighborhoods of those in distress."

Liberal to the end, Mr. Wellstone cast his vote earlier this month against legislation to authorize the use of force in Iraq the only Democrat facing a tough re-election campaign to go against Mr. Bush on the issue.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson and U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan both called Mr. Wellstone a champion of peace.

"He was a profoundly decent man, a man of principle, a man of conscience," Mr. Annan said.

"Wellstone stood up for the little guy," added AFL-CIO President John Sweeney.

"He was tireless and unapologetic for championing the rights of working men and women even when he stood alone, and he often did."

Mr. Wellstone also had two sons, David and Mark, and six grandchildren.

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