Sen. Wellstone Killed in Plane Crash

Oct. 25, 2002 -- U.S. Sen. Paul Wellstone, one of the most prominent liberals in Congress, was killed along with seven other people, including his wife and daughter, when their small plane crashed today in Minnesota.

All eight people aboard the Beech King-Air A100 were killed.

"The senator has logged tens of hundreds of miles on this plane. … It's just the unthinkable happened," said a visibly shocked Jeff Blodgett, a spokesman for the Minnesota Democrat's campaign.

The plane had been carrying Wellstone, 58, his wife Sheila and their daughter Marcia. Also aboard were campaign staff members Will McLaughlin, Tom Lapic and Mary McEvoy, and two pilots, whose names were not immediately released.

The cause of the crash was not immediately known, but sources told ABCNEWS that during the preflight weather briefing, the pilots were told they they would have "adverse icing conditions throughout the flight."

‘It’s Just Terrible’

The turboprop commuter plane was traveling from St. Paul to Eveleth, Minn., when it crashed about seven miles east of the Eveleth airport in northern Minnesota around 10:20 a.m. Central Time.

Wellstone, a two-term senator who was running for re-election, had left a campaign event and was on his way to attend the funeral of Frank Rukavina, the father of a Democratic state representative, when the plane went down. The aircraft had been chartered from Executive Aviation.

One pilot who flew over said wreckage said it was widely scattered and charred in a wooded, swampy area.

"It's just terrible," said Lisa Pattni, a Wellstone campaign aide who traveled to the crash site. "Say a prayer."

The Wellstone crash was eerily reminiscent of a fatal crash in 2000 that claimed the life of Mel Carnahan, the Democratic nominee for a Senate seat from Missouri.

Carnahan, who was Missouri governor at the time, and two others — including his son, who was piloting the plane — died when their Cessna 335 crashed in rain and fog on Oct. 16, 2000.

Carnahan's name remained on the ballot and it got more votes than the incumbent, Sen. John Ashcroft. Carnahan's widow was appointed to serve in his place while Ashcroft became President Bush's attorney general.

Although they had been warned of icing conditions, the pilots had reported no problems before the crash and there was no severe weather in the area at the time, the Federal Aviation Administration said. Because of light snow and light fog around the airport, the plane would have been on instrument approach at the time of the crash.

Federal aviation officials and the FBI's evidence recovery team were at the accident scene today, probing the cause of the crash.

ABCNEWS aviation expert John Nance said the plane was a common charter and considered to be an extremely reliable airplane.

"It's an all-weather aircraft, capable of flying all the time. Speaking as a airline pilot, it feels like a small airliner," he said.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., had been campaigning with Wellstone earlier today. Wellstone had left Kennedy, who was giving a speech on Wellstone's behalf, to travel to the Rukavina funeral.

"All of us who knew Paul Wellstone … are devastated today," Kennedy said after the crash. "We will miss you, Paul, and we will never forget you."

A Leading Liberal Voice

Elected leaders across the political spectrum reacted with shock and sadness to news of Wellstone's death.

"Paul Wellstone was a man of deep convictions. He was a plainspoken fellow who did his best for his state and for his country," President Bush said. "May the good Lord bless those who grieve."

Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., called Wellstone the "soul of the Senate."

"For the people of Minnesota, this is too heartbreaking for words," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss. "For the entire United States Senate, this is a death in our family. For all of us, this is a reminder of the dedication of the men and women who serve their country in public office."

Sen. Phil Gramm, R-Texas, called Wellstone "a man of conviction, who never swayed from his beliefs even when he was fighting a lonely battle."

Wellstone was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1990. He was considered one of the most prominent liberal members of the Senate. He drew national attention recently when he voted against authorizing President Bush to use force against Iraq.

ABCNEWS' George Stephanopoulos described Wellstone as "probably the most outspoken liberal" in the Senate.

"He was the only vulnerable Senate incumbent who voted against the president on Iraq," Stephanopoulos said.

ABCNEWS' Linda Douglass said Wellstone was a "true ideologue."

"Many strong conservatives in the Senate admired Sen. Paul Wellstone's unflinching liberalism," she said.

Election Suddenly Uncertain

Wellstone had worried his Iraq vote would hurt his re-election bid, but he was more confident in recent days. He was also seeking a third term in spite of a promise he made to only serve two, and in spite of a recent announcement that he suffered from a mild form of multiple sclerosis.

Still, in the latest Minneapolis Star Tribune poll, completed on Oct. 16, Wellstone was ahead of his Republican challenger, Norm Coleman.

Coleman announced this afternoon he was suspending all campaign activities.

The people of Minnesota have experienced a terrible, unimaginable tragedy," Coleman said in a statement. "The entire Wellstone family has been selfless, public servants who embodied the best of Minnesota."

Wellstone's sudden death has thrown the U.S. Senate race in Minnesota into confusion.

According to Minnesota law, a new nomination must be filed within seven days. The election takes place on Nov. 5, and control of the Senate is tightly contested between the two major parties.

Although Gov. Carnahan's widow took over his campaign in the 2000 Missouri Senate race after his death, there is no obvious successor to Wellstone.

From Professor to Senator

The son of Russian Jewish immigrants, Wellstone was raised in Arlington, Va., and attended the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where he was a champion wrestler.

He received a Ph.D. in political science from the university and taught at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn., for 21 years before running for the Senate.

In 1963, he married Sheila Ison. The couple had three children, daughter Marcia and sons David and Mark, and six grandchildren.

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