Alaska News

Authorities call off search for 12-year-old boy missing after Wrangell landslide

Wrangell officials announced Wednesday they were suspending the search for a 12-year-old boy missing for more than two weeks after a massive landslide destroyed three homes in the community, killing five residents.

Derek Heller is the last person to remain missing in the Nov. 20 landslide. One resident survived: Christina Florschutz, a teacher’s aide who managed to pull herself from the wreckage of the home she shared with her husband.

The 450-foot-wide slide uprooted trees and pulled earth from the mountainside into the ocean at Mile 11 of the Zimovia Highway. Members of the Wrangell Volunteer Fire Department, search volunteers, specially trained search and rescue dogs and equipment operators have scoured the debris for weeks, local authorities say.

In the days following the slide, crews found the bodies of four other members of the Heller family, including parents Timothy Heller, 44, and Beth Heller, 36, along with children Mara Heller, 16, and Kara Heller, 11. Last week, they also found the body of 65-year-old Otto Florschutz, who lived in a neighboring home with his wife, the lone survivor.

State transportation crews last week cleared enough debris to open the highway temporarily for residents. As debris was cleared, it allowed for search and rescue crews to reach areas previously inaccessible, officials said.

The search for Derek Heller continued through rain and poor weather over the last few weeks. By Wednesday crews had scoured “all accessible areas above and into the intertidal zone,” the City and Borough of Wrangell said Wednesday. Officials decided to suspend search efforts.

“Search and rescue volunteers and a scent detection K9 team will be available to respond with active searching if any new information or evidence leads to a specific search area in the future,” a city statement said.

Updates posted by the city on social media detailed the destruction. On Tuesday night, the city wrote that search teams understood they might not find Heller because “the complexity of the massive amounts of debris in the intertidal zone may be impossible to overcome.”