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Sen. Paul Wellstone dies in Minnesota plane crash

By Don Davis and Steven P. Wagner Forum staff reporters EVELETH, Minn. -- The U.S. Senate lost its most liberal and idealistic member Friday when Sen.

By Don Davis and

Steven P. Wagner

Forum staff reporters

EVELETH, Minn. -- The U.S. Senate lost its most liberal and idealistic member Friday when Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn., died in a plane crash just 11 days before the general election.

Wellstone died among the people who loved him most, the blue collar union members living on the Iron Range in Minnesota's 8th Congressional District Democratic stronghold.

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The twin-engine private plane carrying Wellstone, his wife, Sheila, daughter, Marcia, three campaign staff members, and two pilots, crashed as its approached the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport in northeastern Minnesota. All eight perished.

Wellstone, a spirited lawmaker seeking his third term in Washington, gave up a chance to campaign Friday morning with U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy to attend the funeral of a friend.

Enroute to the funeral, his chartered plane went down shortly after 10 a.m. in a wooded, swampy area two miles from the airport. Difficult terrain presented problems reaching the plane as it burned for several hours.

"Paul Wellstone was one of a kind," his campaign staff said in a statement released Friday afternoon.

"He was dedicated to helping the little guy in a business dominated by the big guys," the statement said. "We who had the privilege of working for him hope that he will be remembered as he lived every day, as a champion of people."

The last communication with the plane came when the crew told airport officials they were about seven miles away, said airport secretary Tracie Chacich.

"After that we never heard from them," she said. "There was no distress call."

The plane, a Beech A-100, was registered in February 1995 to Beech Transportation Inc. in Eden Prairie. The 11-seat plane had an average cruising speed of 146 mph.

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Gary Ulman, assistant airport manager, was rearranging planes inside a hangar when an air traffic controller in Duluth, which handles flights in the area, asked if the plane arrived.

Eveleth officials said the plane never arrived and Ulman took a plane up in the overcast, snowy sky to find it.

"I tried retracing the course they were on," said Ulman, choking back tears. "I got two miles from the airport and I saw plumes of smoke.

"I saw some blue smoke. The color just wasn't right. I flew the airplane over there. All I saw was a ball of fire."

Ulman also said he saw tree tops cut off and debris scattered in a 100-yard-by 50- yard area.

The plane's wings and tail were ripped from the fuselage, St. Louis County Sheriff Rick Wahlberg said.

Once deputies reached the crash site, they confirmed the plane's crew and passengers were killed.

"From the information I have gotten, I don't think anyone would have survived that," he said.

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A cause wasn't offered by officials but Wahlberg said it appears the plane sustained some type of malfunction.

The victim's bodies won't be recovered for some time as investigators comb through the crash site, he said.

"For a lot of people, certainly thoughts and prayers go out to the families," Wahlberg said. "A lot of our people came into contact with Senator Wellstone."

A National Transportation Safety Board team arrived late Friday to investigate the scene. The FBI secured the crash site and plans to work with the NTSB to recover evidence in the crash, FBI spokesman Paul McCabe said.

Five hours after word spread of the 58-year-old senator's death, thousands mourned on the front steps and lawn of the Minnesota Capitol.

All afternoon, supporters gathered at the Wellstone headquarters in St. Paul, some carrying flowers, all carrying sad faces. Flowers and messages of thanks soon filled a fence next to the headquarters.

Sheila Wellstone shadowed her husband on the campaign trail, beaming as he delivered speeches. She sat in the front row of an Oct. 15 debate, and the two held hands during breaks.

Their daughter, Marcia, was a Spanish teacher at White Bear Lake High School.

One of the campaign workers killed was DFL Party Associate Chairwoman Mary McEvoy, who could show as much energy as Wellstone himself.

Also killed were aides Tom Lapic, who was retired, and Will McLaughlin, a young worker at the senator's side throughout the campaign. Pilot Richard Conry and co-pilot Michael Guess also died.

Wellstone, a 58-year-old former college professor and championship wrestler, was in the middle of one of the country's three most-watched and most-heated Senate races.

Republican Norm Coleman also was in northeastern Minnesota Friday. The two, plus a pair of other candidates, were to take part in a Duluth debate Friday night.

Mourners included everyone from Wellstone's staff to President Bush.

"He was a plain-spoken fellow who did the best for his state and his country," Bush said.

Diane Jensen rushed to Wellstone's campaign headquarters when she heard of his death.

"There are other good people," Jensen said, "but there is not another Wellstone."

Readers can reach Forum reporter Don Davis at (651) 290-0707 and reporter Steven P. Wagner at (701) 241-5542

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