Seven people, including an Alaska state lawmaker, died Friday when two small planes collided in midair near the airport in Soldotna, a small community on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula.
Alaska State Soldiers said State Representative Gary Knopp, 67, from Kenai was the sole occupant of a plane. The other plane was flown by a local pilot and carried a guide from Kansas and four people from South Carolina.
“This is an unfathomable tragedy for many families today,” said Alaska Department of Public Safety Commissioner Amanda Price. “Soldiers and partner agencies worked together diligently at the scene and contacted loved ones to brief them on this heartbreaking incident.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the fatal accident, which occurred just before 8:30 a.m.
Rita Geller, who works at a golf course near the airport, said she started running when she heard the planes hit and saw one fall to the ground
“I ran to more than one clearing and basically saw it explode,” she told The Anchorage Daily News. “The engine, things were flying. I didn’t see the second plane, but saw a lot of debris flying. It was horrible. It was like September 11.
The soldiers say six of the seven people were pronounced dead at the scene of the crash. The seventh person died while being taken to hospital.
Besides Knopp, soldiers identified the other six people killed as pilot Gregory Bell, 57, of Soldotna; guide David Rogers, 40, from Kansas; and Caleb Hulsey, 26; Heather Hulsey, 25; Mackay Hulsey, 24, and Kirstin Wright, 23, all from South Carolina.
Bell was one of the owners of High Adventure Air Charter in Soldotna, which offers bear-watching adventures, fishing and hunting tours, and glacier tours, according to his website.
A person who responded to the charter on Friday afternoon said the company had no comment.
“We live in a small, tight community here on the Central Peninsula. When I heard the horrific sounds of a plane crash this morning, which happened very close to my home, I knew there was a high probability that it involved someone we knew well ” Senator Peter Micciche said in a statement.
“I’ve known Gary Knopp and Greg Bell for most of my life. Gary has served the Kenai Peninsula community for decades. I flew with Greg and never felt in better hands, more focused on safety in the air. We are in shock at the loss to our community, ”he said.
Governor Mike Dunleavy has ordered that the flags of the United States and States be lowered to half the staff and remain in this position of honor for Knopp until sunset Monday.
“The First Lady and I wish to express our sincere condolences to the family of Representative Knopp as they mourn her untimely passing,” Dunleavy said in a statement. “During his 42 years on the Kenai Peninsula, Gary has grown into an enthusiast of the outdoors, a seasoned pilot and a dedicated public servant. His presence will undoubtedly be missed by those he faithfully served.
Speaker of the House Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham said he was shocked and devastated upon hearing of Knopp’s death. “Gary was a one of a kind leader and a true Alaskan who worked tirelessly for his District in the Legislature. He will be sadly missed.
Senate Speaker Cathy Giessel, Republican Anchorage, called it a “heartbreaking tragedy. More than a legislator, Gary Knopp was husband, father, son, brother, grandfather and friend. He will be sorely missed.
The Federal Aviation Administration initially said the two planes involved were a single-engine de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver and a twin-engine Piper Aztec; however, the FAA later said it did not believe the second aircraft was a Piper Aztec, but he had not yet confirmed the make and model of the aircraft concerned.
The NTSB later tweeted that the second plane was a Piper PA-12.
The two planes collided about 2 miles northeast of Soldotna airport, according to the FAA statement after the crash.
The FAA sent two investigators to the crash site, about 241 kilometers southwest of Anchorage.
Knopp, a Republican, left the House GOP caucus and served in a coalition of Democrats, Independents and GOP lawmakers that included the House majority. This left the remaining Republicans in the House in the minority.
Knopp faced two Republican challengers in the August 18 primary. A message sent to the State Elections Division to see if Knopp’s name would remain on the ballot was not immediately returned.
Knopp was first elected to State House in 2016 and served for years in the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly.
He was born in Whitefish, Montana, and moved to Alaska in 1979. He eventually settled in Kenai and worked as a general contractor.
His hobbies included flying, diving, hunting, golfing “and enjoying life in general at home on the peninsula,” according to his legislative biography.