The Great Sen. Paul Wellstone Dies in Plane Crash
EVELETH, Minn. (AP) Sen. Paul Wellstone, the passionately liberal Democrat whose re-election campaign was vital to control of the Senate, was killed in a plane crash in northern Minnesota on Friday along with his wife, daughter and five others.
The crash came just 11 days before the election. Stunned party officials said it was too early to discuss replacing Wellstone on the ballot.
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 usual approach to the airport.
``It's just terrible. Say a prayer,'' said Lisa Pattni, an aide at the crash site.
The wreckage was still smoldering several hours after the crash in a wooded, swampy area two miles from the airport and several hundred yards from the closest paved road. A 16-member team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived Friday night to determine the cause, and NTSB acting chairwoman Carol Carmody said the first priority was finding the cockpit voice recorder.
Wellstone, a 58-year-old former college professor and one of the foremost liberals on Capitol Hill, was on his way to a funeral.
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 people 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 Wellstone's wife, Sheila, 58, and daughter, Marcia, 33; three campaign staff members; and two pilots.
The last senator to die in office was Sen. 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.''
Wellstone's death threw the battle for the Senate into uncharted territory. Before Friday, Democrats held control by a single seat.
Minnesota law allows the governor to fill a vacant Senate seat, but it also allows a political party to pick a replacement if a nominee dies. In this case, the name must be offered by next Thursday.
Ventura wouldn't say what he would do, saying only that he would not appoint himself to serve the rest of Wellstone's term in the lame-duck session of Congress between Election Day and the arrival of new members.
Shaken Democratic officials wouldn't comment on possible replacements. Rebecca Yanisch, the state trade commissioner who ran for Senate in 2000, indicated she might be interested, while former Sen. Walter Mondale didn't take questions at an appearance and didn't return a call seeking comment.
Two years ago, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, his son and an aide were killed in a crash three weeks before Election Day as he campaigned for the Senate. His name remained on the ballot and he beat Republican Sen. John Ashcroft.
Carnahan's widow, Jean, was appointed to serve in his place and is now running in a special election against Republican Jim Talent, with the winner completing the six-year term originally won by Mel Carnahan.
Mrs. Carnahan canceled campaign appearances Friday and called Wellstone's death ``heartbreaking news.''
Wellstone was up against Republican Norm Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul and President Bush's choice to challenge the two-term incumbent.
Coleman, who was scheduled to debate Wellstone on Friday night, immediately suspended campaign activities. He said he, his wife and father were flying to a campaign stop in the same part of Minnesota when they learned his opponent had been killed.
``We prayed on the plane. We hugged, the staff cried,'' Coleman said. ``The people of Minnesota have experienced a terrible, unimaginable tragedy.''
Wellstone had leased the Beech King Air turboprop for the flight to the town of Virginia for the funeral of state Rep. Tom Rukavina's father.
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, Ulman said, he took off in a plane to search for it. He soon saw smoke.
``The wreckage was scattered and fully engulfed in flames,'' 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 2 1/2 miles, well above the one-mile minimum for a standard instrument landing. 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 would take time to recover the bodies, which remained in the wreckage late Friday.
Ventura said flags at state buildings would be flown at half-staff through Nov. 5. In Texas, Bush called 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.''
Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said Wellstone was the ``soul of the Senate. He was one of the most noble and courageous men I have ever known.''
Before running for office, 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.''
Wellstone 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 didn't stop campaigning.
``For me, no stress would be stress,'' 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.''
Wellstone said he spent most of his time blocking what he viewed as harmful Republican legislation, from drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to legislation that would make it harder for people to declare bankruptcy.
He 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.
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, 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 to go against Bush on the issue.
The Rev. Jesse Jackson and United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan both called Wellstone a champion of peace. ``He was a profoundly decent man, a man of principle, a man of conscience,'' 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.''
Sen. Peter Fitzgerald, R-Ill., said Wellstone won the respect of Democrats and Republicans alike.
``Some have called him sort of like a '60s liberal. Some of his opponents have criticized him for being that,'' he said. ``I think in Paul the flame of idealism and liberalism never died.''
Wellstone also had two sons, David, 37, and Mark, 30, and six grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.