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Ex-lawmaker Heinze dies in Homer floatplane crash

Kyle Hopkins
Cheryll Heinze
Matanuska Electric Association photo
A Cessna 206 crashed in Beluga Lake in Homer on landing, July 10, 2012. Cheryll Heinze died as a result of the crash.
Photo by Mary Ellen Ulrich

Former Alaska state Rep. Cheryll Heinze died in a plane crash late Tuesday in Homer.

The Cessna 206, on floats, flipped while landing on Beluga Lake near the Homer airport, according to the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash. Heinze became trapped in the upended plane.

"She, as I understand it, had been underwater for some period of time before they were able to get her out," said Harold Heinze, Cheryll's husband.

A one-term Anchorage legislator, Heinze more recently worked as director of human resources and public affairs for Matanuska Electric Association. MEA general manager Joe Griffith, 71, was flying Heinze and other employees to Homer for a fishing trip at the invitation of a power plant contractor, said a spokesman for the Palmer-based utility.

The 65-year-old former lawmaker was among five people on board the small plane, said air safety investigator Clint Johnnson. The four others suffered minor injuries, he said.

25-35 mph gusts

The wind was blowing hard on the lake shortly before the crash, said Mary Ellen Ulrich, who lives at the north edge of Beluga Lake. The accident site was directly behind her house, she said.

Gusts had overturned a table on her deck and Ulrich was thinking of moving her plants inside when she heard a strange sound on the water. She called to her husband. When the couple spotted the airplane, it was upside down.

People appeared to be hanging from the floats, Ulrich said.

Another plane taxied to the submerged Cessna and helped in the rescue, she said.

The weather at the Homer airport was cloudy, with winds of 15 to 20 mph and gusts of 25 to 30 mph at about 10 p.m., said John Stepetin, a specialist at the National Weather Service's Anchorage office.

Troopers say a rescue boat retrieved the passengers.

The Cessna was underwater when Heinze was pulled free, said trooper spokeswoman Megan Peters.

"They started CPR, they got a pulse on her and I believe she was also breathing at that point, but I don't think she regained consciousness," Peters said.

Witness photos show rescuers attempting to revive a passenger while standing on the float of the plane in the middle of the lake. The floats on the upended Cessna appear bent and nearly broken.

Harold Heinze, Cheryl's husband, is a former ARCO Alaska president and past Department of Natural Resources commissioner who said he now works as a consultant, including advisory work on MEA's ongoing Eklutna power plant project.

At one point, Harold had planned on joining other MEA officials on the trip, he said. "MEA, at a senior level, had been invited to meet with and enjoy some fishing with one of the contractor's we'd had on board."

The plan was to fly or drive to Homer -- at the invitation of engineering contractor Stanley Consultants -- and begin fishing early Wednesday morning, he said.

The trip began at about 4 or 5 p.m. Tuesday, with the group flying out of Sixmile Lake at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, Harold Heinze said.

That night, Harold tried to call his wife and others on the trip. No one answered, he said.

"The first I heard ... was when the Anchorage Police Department came to the door about 1 a.m. this morning and told me that she had been involved in an accident and I need to get to the hospital to meet the medevac plane," Harold said.

Harold was told his wife's emergency flight was to leave Homer at about 3 a.m.

"Even though they were able to start her heart again, she still was pretty weak as far as the vital signs," Harold Heinze said.

He said he sent text messages asking people for their prayers. Cheryll, who had been receiving care in Homer, never arrived at the Anchorage hospital.

"Evidently her heart stopped again. And they were not able to revive her," Harold said.

Served single term

Harold said he met Cheryll when she was a press secretary for Wally Hickel's successful gubernatorial campaign and he had just been appointed commissioner of Natural Resources.

"(She was) strong but very caring. Very much of a family person," Harold said. "And comes with a lot of different talents. A first-class oil painter. Artist, on the one hand, a politician. She ran for public office and won and took great pride in her service."

Cheryll's painting of Mount Foraker can be seen at the Foraker Group offices, Harold said. "Her McKinley, we've always thought (it was) world class."

A Republican, she served a single term in the Alaska Legislature, representing House District 24 in a traditionally Republican part of Midtown. She won the open seat in 2002.

In 2004, two years before the now infamous federal investigation into Alaska political corruption burst into public view, Heinze was investigated by the FBI over a complaint she had solicited jobs from Railbelt utilities while a legislator. No charges were filed, and she did not seek re-election, citing health reasons. In 2006, Veco Corp. head Bill Allen told the FBI that Heinze came to his house seeking a job while she was still in office. Allen, who later pleaded guilty to bribery and conspiracy involving other legislators, said he didn't offer her one because he thought she was setting him up. Heinze disputed those assertions. She said Allen knew her cousin, country music star Hoyt Axton, and aunt, Mae Boren Axton, who co-wrote Elvis Presley's first No. 1 hit, "Heartbreak Hotel," and that she and Allen used to talk about that musical connection.

"That rotten --!" she exclaimed in a 2008 interview. "You know that man has sold his soul and lied about everybody."

Gov. Sean Parnell ordered state flags lowered to half-staff on Friday in memory of Heinze.

Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, who won the House seat vacated by Heinze, issued a statement praising Heinze's commitment to the city and state.

"(Cheryll) was a very sweet person who worked across party lines to get things done. She was my friend and I will miss her," Gardner said.

No "mechanical irregularities"

Griffith, the pilot, was not immediately available for comment Wednesday. A well-known Alaska businessman and retired military pilot, he served three tours in Vietnam. He was an instructor at the Air Force's fighter weapons school and a flight wing commander at then-Elmendorf Air Force Base.

Griffith spent 16 years in executive management at Chugach Electric Association, including three as chief executive. In 2005, he went to work as a consultant for air charter and medevac business, Security Aviation, and got to fly its Czech-built L-39 fighter jets. He became a witness for the defense after the corporation and one of its principals were charged with illegally possessing rocket launchers. A jury found the company and principal not guilty.

Griffith spoke with NTSB officials Wednesday. "The pilot stated that there were not mechanical irregularities with the aircraft," said Banning, the lead investigator.

Banning and another air safety investigator arrived Wednesday morning in Homer, where they were working with divers to retrieve the plane from the lake..

"We're looking at the aircraft. The pilot. The man and the machine," Banning said. "And so we're looking at all those factors, but it's really too early to know what happened."

After leaving Anchorage, the flight apparently stopped in Kenai for dinner before arriving in Homer, based on a preliminary investigation, Johnson said. "There was another group of folks, I guess, driving down to meet them there."

The group had planned to return to Anchorage Wednesday night, said Kevin Brown, the MEA spokesman.

"We're all deeply saddened by Cheryll's loss," Brown said in a short phone interview. "She has touched every life at MEA in an exceptionally positive way, and she is going to be deeply missed."

Reporter Lisa Demer contributed to this report. Contact Kyle Hopkins at khopkins@adn.com or call (907) 257-4334.

Photos: Floatplane crashes on Homer lake
By KYLE HOPKINS
Anchorage Daily News