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Midair collision kills 7, including Alaska state lawmaker

"I could see the plane blowing apart, the pieces of it flying off and the fuselage was on fire," a witness of the collision said.
Image: Gary Knopp
Alaska state Rep. Gary Knopp during in a floor session in Juneau, Alaska on Feb. 12, 2018.Becky Bohrer / AP file

A midair collision of two planes in Alaska killed seven people, including a state lawmaker, on Friday.

State Rep. Gary Knopp, a Republican, was flying solo in a plane that crashed with another aircraft carrying six people including four who were on a group trip from South Carolina, a guide from Kansas and a local pilot, the Alaska Department of Public Safety said.

The deadly collision occurred just before 8 a.m. near the small town of Soldotna, about 150 miles southwest of Anchorage, authorities said.

“This is an unfathomable tragedy for multiple families today. The DPS sends a heartfelt condolence to all who lost a loved one in this mid-air collision,” Alaska Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the cause of the collision between the planes, which were a single-engine de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver and a Piper-PA12.

The six who died in the plane that crashed with Knopp's were pilot Gregory Bell, 57, who owned High Adventure Air Charter in Soldotna; guide David Rogers, 40; and the four young South Carolinians — Caleb Hulsey, 26; Heather Hulsey, age 25; Mackay Hulsey, 24, and Kirstin Wright, 23.

Image: Gary Knopp plane crash
A plane rests in brush and trees after a midair collision outside of Soldotna, Alaska, on July 31, 2020.Jeff Helminiak / AP

The planes came down only two miles from the Soldotna airport and forced local authorities to temporarily close the Sterling Highway.

Rita Geller, who works at the nearby, Birch Ridge Golf Course shop, told local NBC News affiliate KTUU she heard a "loud metallic clang, bang" and then saw the results of the crash.

"I looked up and I saw a plane going down," she said. "I ran around a tree to get a better look and I could see the plane blowing apart, the pieces of it flying off and the fuselage was on fire."

Knopp's staff confirmed the lawmaker's death on Friday and said they were "devastated to hear" of the collision.

"Gary will be remembered as a true Alaskan who always stood for what he believed was right," his office said in a statement. "Gary loved Alaska and fought to make it a better place to live for all Alaskans. His spirit, and the spirit of what he believed in, will live on in the lives of those he touched and in the policies he championed as a public servant."

Knopp, who was born in Whitefish, Montana, moved to Alaska in 1979. He worked as a general contractor and served in the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly from 2006 to 2012 before his election to the Alaska Legislature in 2016 to represent the small town of Kenai.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Republican, ordered that U.S. and Alaska state flags be flown at half-staff for three days in remembrance of Knopp.

“The First Lady and I were heartbroken to learn of the accident above Soldotna today, and our deepest sympathies go out to the families mourning these untimely deaths,” Dunleavy said in a statement. “I can assure them that investigators will have the State’s full cooperation as they begin to unravel this morning’s tragic events.”