Authorities on Friday identified the three individuals who died and the three who remain missing from Monday’s massive landslide in Wrangell, where crews continue to work on reestablishing road access to homes cut off by the debris.
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 swept down a slope in the Southeast Alaska community and buried the Zimovia Highway.
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 the landslide and was in good condition while receiving medical care, the agency said. Florschutz, a Republican who previously served on Wrangell’s Port Commission, was one of dozens of candidates who entered the race to fill the congressional seat vacated when longtime U.S. Rep. Don Young died last year.
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 450-foot-wide landslide destroyed three homes and damaged a section of the Zimovia Highway after strong winds and rains. It snapped large trees like toothpicks as it descended from near the top of a mountain to the ocean.
One of the destroyed homes was unoccupied at the time of the landslide late Monday night. Dozens of other homes in the community of about 2,000 were cut off from power and other services by the landslide.
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.
The public safety department said Thursday that they were no longer conducting an active search, but instead were on standby to respond if more information about the location of the three missing people emerges as state transportation crews and others slowly clear the road. The search had involved drones, sonar, search dogs and other methods.
A canine scent detection team was in place and ready to resume searching as needed, the Department of Public Safety said Friday.
Gov. Mike Dunleavy met with residents and community leaders in the town, his office said in a statement. He said it’s a trying time for the tight-knit community.
“I will continue praying for Wrangell and for the Florschutz and Heller’s families and loved ones,” he said. “... This week, dozens of Alaskans have sacrificed spending Thanksgiving with their families to join the search and rescue efforts, to bring comfort and to support the families affected by this tragedy. I’m grateful for each person who has stepped up to help their fellow Alaskans.”
The governor declared a disaster for the landslide earlier this week. Affected Wrangell residents can apply for individual assistance starting Tuesday, from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m., by phone at 844-445-7131 or online at ready.alaska.gov/ia, the statement said.
The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities said in an update Saturday that it was continuing to work on clearing the highway.
“Removing trees on the (north side) of the slide continues at a steady pace but is time consuming,” the update said. “Crews are starting up on the south side of the slide today, Saturday, Nov. 25. Both the north and south crews have rescue dog teams standing by, to assist as needed.”
“Our field personnel estimate that the highway has approximately 3,500 cubic yards of material to move. Early signs are that the asphalt has been damaged. Once we have the debris removed we will be able to determine what repairs are needed,” the update said.
The department has previously said that about 10 heavy equipment operators were involved in trying to dig out a path through the landslide debris, using excavators, loaders and haul trucks.
The state transportation department is working carefully with a local contractor and other experts to watch out for signs of missing people in case the activity needs to stop, it said. It’s also working with drone crews and others to monitor the landslide for continuing safety hazards.
The Department of Public Safety said next of kin have been notified for the missing and deceased. The bodies of the deceased were sent to the State Medical Examiner Office in Anchorage for autopsy.
Updates on road clearing can be found at the transportation department’s social media pages, while information about ongoing recovery efforts can be found at the Alaska Division of Homeland Security and Emergency Management’s social media sites.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Daily News reporters Alex DeMarban and Annie Berman contributed.