[This story has been updated with additional information about the crash from the Alaska Department of Public Safety and the National Transportation Safety Board.]
Alaska U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola’s husband, Eugene “Buzzy” Peltola Jr., died after a plane he was flying crashed Tuesday night in Southwest Alaska.
Mary Peltola flew home from Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to be with their family, Peltola’s office said.
Alaska State Troopers were notified of the crash about 64 miles northeast of the village of St. Mary’s around 8:50 p.m. Tuesday, according to a statement from the state Department of Public Safety. Federal aviation authorities identified the plane as a single-engine Piper PA-18 Super Cub and said it crashed in mountainous terrain.
Peltola had flown a hunter and equipment to a remote location before the crash, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The crash occurred just following Peltola’s departure, after dropping off the hunter, according to state public safety officials, who said Peltola was the only person on the plane. Two hunters at the scene of the crash provided medical care, but Peltola died before a rescue team arrived early Wednesday, they said. Sunset in the area on Tuesday occurred at 9:25 p.m.
The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation into the crash. The board’s chair, Jennifer Homendy, said during a media briefing Wednesday that investigators will be interviewing witnesses to the crash.
An emergency locator transmitter registered to Peltola was activated Tuesday evening, authorities said. The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center deployed an Alaska Air National Guard rescue team aboard an HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter, which arrived at the scene early Wednesday. NTSB officials in Alaska received a crash notification message just after 1:20 a.m., Homendy said.
Peltola’s body was brought to the State Medical Examiner’s Office in Anchorage for an autopsy. The two uninjured hunters at the site were flown to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, according to the Department of Public Safety.
Alaska Air National Guard spokesman Alan Brown said the rescue crew flew from the crash site to McGrath, where they transferred Peltola’s body and the passengers onto an Air National Guard HC-130 plane.
Peltola, 57, was the former regional director of the Bureau of Indian Affairs for Alaska, serving in that position from 2018 to 2022. He previously spent 34 years working for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Alaska. Among other roles, he served as vice mayor and council member for the city of Bethel between 2010 and 2012 and sat on various Alaska Native village corporation boards.
After retiring in 2022 from his work for federal agencies, Peltola co-founded Alaska Carbon Solutions, a consulting firm focused on carbon sequestration.
Peltola held a commercial pilot certification originally issued in 2004, according to an FAA database. The plane that crashed was not registered in Peltola’s name.
A statement from Rep. Peltola’s chief of staff, Anton McParland, described Buzzy Peltola as “one of those people that was obnoxiously good at everything. He had a delightful sense of humor that lightened the darkest moments. He was definitely the cook in the family. And family was most important to him. He was completely devoted to his parents, kids, siblings, extended family, and friends — and he simply adored Mary. We are heartbroken for the family’s loss.”
Peltola’s office staff will continue to meet with constituents “while Mary and her family grieve,” McParland said.
Mary Peltola was first elected just over a year ago in a special U.S. House election after longtime Alaska Rep. Don Young died on a plane after losing consciousness on a flight from Los Angeles to Seattle in March 2022. Peltola, a Democrat, was elected to a regular term last November. She became the first Alaska Native member of Congress and the first woman to hold Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat.
She was sworn into office a year ago Wednesday.
News of her husband’s death spread quickly Wednesday morning, drawing an outpouring of tributes from across Alaska and beyond, along with messages of support for their family.
The Alaska Federation of Natives issued a statement on social media saying Buzzy Peltola’s work and legacy “will always be remembered.”
President Joe Biden, in a written statement, said, “Spend even a minute with Mary and you’ll feel the love she has for her state and its people, and most of all, the love she has for her husband and their seven children. Buzzy was a devoted public servant and in the tributes coming from all over the state today, he is being remembered as a friend to all. But we know he was, first and always, the adored and devoted husband and father to a family now in pain.”
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said in a social media post that she was “shocked, saddened and truly beyond words to express my grief at the loss of Gene Peltola Jr. Anyone who met Buzzy felt his warmth, generosity and charm. It was easy to see why so many Alaskans called him a friend, and how he was so loved by his family.”
Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, said in a social media statement that he is mourning “the tragic loss of Gene, and offer Mary and her family our heartfelt prayers for strength and consolation in this time of unspeakable loss and grief, and know that Alaskans across our great state are doing the same.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy also shared condolences.
“He was our neighbor in Kotzebue decades ago and our paths continued to cross to this day,” Dunleavy said in a statement. “I knew Gene as a man who loved his family and put family first. He was smart, funny, hardworking and one of those guys you just enjoyed meeting up with. He dedicated his career to public service.”
Other plane crashes involving prominent Alaska figures
Alaska, a state where aviation plays a key role in basic transportation, has a long history of plane crashes involving prominent figures and their family members.
• Former Alaska U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, the longest-serving Republican in U.S. Senate history, died with four others in a mountainside crash in 2010 while on an annual fishing trip near Bristol Bay. Stevens was one of two survivors of a small jet crash in 1978 that killed five others, including his first wife, Ann, at what later became known as Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
• In 1972, Alaska U.S. Rep. Nick Begich disappeared along with House Majority Leader Hale Boggs and a Begich aide on a small-plane flight between Anchorage and Juneau. Congressman Don Young was elected in a special election to replace Begich, serving in that capacity since 1973.
• The Alaska National Guard’s adjutant general, Maj. Gen. Thomas P. Carroll, died in a cargo plane crash in Prince William Sound in 1964 flying out of Valdez in a heavy snowstorm weeks after a tsunami battered the community.
• His son, Brig. Gen. Thomas C. Carroll, deputy commissioner and chief of staff of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs and commander of the Alaska Army National Guard, also died in a 1992 plane crash near Juneau in which seven other guardsmen died.
• More recently, former Alaska state Rep. Cheryll Heinze died in 2012 when a floatplane flipped on landing in Homer. Four others in the plane were injured.
• Former state Rep. Mike Kelly died in the 2016 crash of a plane he was piloting with no passengers. The single-engine American Champion Citabria went down on Fort Wainwright near Fairbanks.
• State Rep. Gary Knopp was one of seven people who died when the Piper PA-12 he was flying and a de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver operated by an adventure air charter business collided in midair over Soldotna in July 2020.