Landslide Claims 6 Lives, Including Family and Local Politician, Leaves Two Children Missing

The identities of the victims and missing persons from a devastating landslide in southeast Alaska were released by authorities on Friday. The victims include five members of a family and their neighbor, a commercial fisherman who had previously run for Alaska’s sole seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Timothy Heller, 44, and Beth Heller, 36, along with their children Mara, 16; Derek, 12; and Kara, 11, were at home when the landslide occurred near the island community of Wrangell. The bodies of the parents and the eldest child were recovered by search crews late Monday or early Tuesday. The two younger children and their neighbor, Otto Florschutz, 65, are still missing, according to a statement from the Alaska Department of Public Safety.

Florschutz, a Republican who had served on Wrangell’s Port Commission, was among the 48 candidates who ran for the congressional seat left vacant by the death of U.S. Rep. Don Young last year. Despite receiving only 193 votes out of nearly 162,000 cast, Florschutz was known for his ability to build consensus, as he stated in a candidate statement provided to the Anchorage Daily News.

Florschutz was not just a politician, but also a 42-year commercial fisherman who had served in various community elected positions and had skills in boat repair, mechanics, welding, carpentry, and business. His neighbor, Beth Heller, had served on the Wrangell School Board from 2019 to 2020 after several years on the district’s parent advisory committee. The Heller family ran a construction company called Heller High Water.

The Hellers were both natives of Wrangell and had been married since August 2010. Their friend, Tyla Nelson, described Beth as a “fantastic human” and a “wonderful mother” who did everything for her children. The loss of the family has deeply affected the community, with Wrangell School District Superintendent Bill Burr stating that counseling would be available for students and staff when school resumes after the Thanksgiving break.

The landslide, which was estimated to be 450 feet wide, occurred during a period of heavy rainfall and strong winds. It tore down a swath of evergreen trees from the top of the mountain above the community to the ocean, hitting three homes and burying a highway near Wrangell, about 155 miles south of Juneau. One of the homes was unoccupied. The landslide has cut off about 54 homes from the town, with approximately 35 to 45 residents choosing to stay in the area. Supplies, including food, fuel, water, and prescription medications, are being delivered by boat.

The cleanup efforts are ongoing, with officials working to clear debris from the highway. The geography of the island, with the town at the northern point and houses along a 13-mile stretch of paved road, means that currently, “the ocean is our only access to those residences,” said Mason Villarma, interim borough manager.