By Gilbert Cordova and Cheyenne Mathews
ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) – A crash involving two aircraft near Soldotna has resulted in the deaths of seven people, Alaska State Troopers said Friday afternoon.
Troopers have identified Rep. Gary Knopp of Kenai as the pilot and sole occupant of one of the planes. The other plane had six passengers who were identified as 57-year-old Pilot Gregory Bell of Soldotna, 40-year-old David Rogers from Kansas, 26-year-old Caleb Hulsey, 25-year-old Heather Hulsey, 24-year-old Mackay Hulsey and 23-year-old Kirstin Wright all from South Carolina.
Troopers say family has been notified. Troopers say there was debris left on the Sterling Highway near where the crash happened at mile 91.5. The highway was temporarily closed “due to safety concerns.”
Troopers say all occupants of the two planes were reported deceased on the scene with the exception of one person who died on the way to the hospital.
Kenai lawmaker Rep. Gary Knopp was one of the passengers in a plane involved in the fatal crash.
Alaska House Majority Communications Director Austin Baird confirmed the news through a press release Friday morning.
“I’m devastated and shocked to learn of the crash that claimed Gary Knopp’s life,” said House Speaker Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham. “Gary was a one-of-a-kind leader and a true Alaskan who worked tirelessly for his district in the Legislature. He will be missed by many.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy and First Lady Rose Dunleavy released a statement following the news.
“The First Lady and I wish to express our heartfelt condolences to Representative Knopp’s family as they mourn his untimely passing,” Dunleavy said. “Throughout his 42 years on the Kenai Peninsula, Gary became well known as an avid outdoorsman, a skilled pilot, and a dedicated public servant. His presence will no doubt be missed by those he faithfully served.”
Dunleavy has ordered the United States flag and Alaska state flag to be flown at half-staff in honor of Knopp for three days beginning immediately and ending at sunset on Monday, Aug. 3.
Senate President Cathy Giessel today issued the following statement after the tragic death of Soldotna Representative Gary Knopp.
“This is a heartbreaking tragedy. More than a legislator, Gary Knopp was a husband, father, son, brother, grandfather, and friend. He will be tremendously missed.”
“I am stunned by the news of Gary’s tragic death. Gary was a friend. As a legislator, he was a man of conscience and duty. A person I trusted and cared for, I knew he had the state’s and his constituents’ best interests at heart, always. His wife Helen and his family are all in my thoughts today.” said Senator Tom Begich (D-Anchorage)
Senator Peter Micciche of Soldotna today issued the following statement after death.
“We live in a small, tight community here in the Central Peninsula. When I heard the horrific sounds of a plane crash this morning, which occurred very close to my home, I knew there was a high probability it involved someone we knew well.
“My family and I are heartbroken to learn of the loss of Representative Gary Knopp, Greg Bell, and the other lost souls due to this morning’s collision. Our hearts and prayers go out to Helen Knopp and the Bell Family, as well as the other involved families. We are still in shock to learn of the loss and the significant impacts to our community and our state.
According to NTSB Alaska Chief Clint Johnson, a mid-air collision of two aircraft north of Soldotna Friday morning was close to the airport.
According to the Associated Press, the FAA says the planes involved were a single-engine de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver and a twin-engine Piper Aztec. Two federal investigators were dispatched to the scene shortly after the crash.
Rita Geller, a shop attendant at Birch Ridge Golf Course near Soldotna, said she heard the crash and saw a plane going down.
The first thing was I heard a really loud, metallic clang,” she said. “And I looked up and I saw a plane going down and I ran around a tree to get a better look and I could see the plane blowing apart.”
Geller said she is praying for the families of the victims.
“That just what a horrible, horrible thing I just saw,” Geller said. “I’m still kind of shook up by it. I was in shock. My knees felt weak. I couldn’t believe I was seeing that and it reminded me of that shock of 911 that you can’t believe what you’re seeing the plane was exploding.”
The Associated Press adds wreckage after the collision at 8:30 a.m. came down near the Sterling Highway and briefly closed the highway.
The age of Gregory Bell has been updated after a Trooper spokesperson said the age was incorrectly reported as 67 and not 57 in a Trooper dispatch.