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5 family members and a commercial fisherman neighbor are ID’d as dead or missing in Alaska landslide

Search crews found the bodies of the parents and the oldest child, but the younger children remain missing, as does a neighbor, after the landslide near Wrangell.
Debris and mud from a landslide extends from a forested mountain.
Debris from a landslide extends into the sea on Zimovia Highway in Wrangell, Alaska on Nov. 22, 2023. Alaska Department of Public Safety via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Authorities on Friday identified those missing or killed in a southeast Alaska landslide this week as five family members and their neighbor, a commercial fisherman who made a longshot bid for the state’s lone seat in the U.S. 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 near the island community of Wrangell. Search crews found the bodies of the parents and the oldest child late Monday or early Tuesday; the younger children remain missing, as does neighbor Otto Florschutz, 65, the Alaska Department of Public Safety said in an emailed statement.

Florschutz’s wife survived.

Florschutz, a Republican who previously served on Wrangell’s Port Commission, was one of 48 candidates who entered the race to fill the congressional seat vacated when longtime U.S. 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.”

Wrangell School District Superintendent Bill Burr said in an email Friday that counseling would be available for students and staff Monday when school resumes after the Thanksgiving break.

“The loss of even one child is a very difficult time, and having an entire family with three students is devastating,” Burr wrote.

The slide tore down a swath of evergreen trees from the top of the mountain above the community to the ocean, striking three homes and burying a highway near the island community of Wrangell, about 155 miles (250 kilometers) south of Juneau. One of the homes was unoccupied.

The slide — estimated to be 450 feet (137 meters) wide — occurred during a significant rainfall and heavy winds. Wrangell received about 2 inches (5 centimeters) of rain from early Monday until late evening, with wind gusts up to 60 mph (96 kph) at higher elevations, said Aaron Jacobs, a National Weather Service hydrologist and meteorologist in Juneau.

The landslide cut off about 54 homes from town. 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-kilometer) stretch of paved road — currently “the ocean is our only access to those residences,” Villarma said.

Officials continued to clear debris from the highway Friday.