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Alaska float plane crash kills former state lawmaker

Ben Anderson
The Tuesday night crash near Homer on Alaska's Kenai Peninsula killed 65-year-old former Anchorage Rep. Cheryll Heinze.
Jim Lavrakas photo
Fuselage of a Cessna 206, which crashed during a landing attempt at Beluga Lake Tuesday night, lays upside down in the lake Wednesday afternoon.
Jim Lavrakas photo
Homer Fire Chief Robert Painter said multiple EMS and fire crews responded to the crash, with an inflatable Zodiac boat to assist in the rescue.
Jim Lavrakas photo
Another plane that saw the accident taxied over to the inverted aircraft, and two other passengers were able to climb onto the floats. Rescued passengers were taxied to shore, while two others were picked up by the Zodiac.
Jim Lavrakas photo

Former Alaska legislator Cheryll Heinze died Tuesday night when a float-equipped Cessna 206 that she and four other people were traveling in from Anchorage flipped upon landing in Beluga Lake about 10:30 p.m.

The Homer Fire Department dispatched a boat to the scene, where the plane was underwater. Four of the five passengers were able to safely evacuate with what National Transportation Safety Board investigator Clint Johnson described as minor injuries.

The 65-year-old Heinze, however, was trapped in the submerged aircraft before being extricated by rescue personnel, the Alaska State Troopers said. She didn’t survive.

“From what it sounded like, the plane was under water, and she was trapped inside,” troopers spokeswoman Megan Peters said. “They initiated CPR, and from what I’m told, they were able to get a pulse.”

Heinze died before arriving at an Anchorage hospital for treatment.

According to Homer Fire Chief Robert Painter, multiple EMS and fire crews responded to the crash, with an inflatable Zodiac boat to assist in the rescue. Painter confirmed that four of the five passengers on the plane were able to self-rescue, with two clinging to the floats of the overturned plane in the cold water of Beluga Lake.

Painter said that another plane that saw the accident taxied over to the inverted aircraft, and two other passengers were able to climb onto the floats into the chilly air. The other aircraft then taxied over to shore to drop off the rescued passengers, while two more passengers were picked up by the Zodiac.

That just left Heinze, trapped in the upside-down plane. Painter said that some of the rescuers had ice-rescue suits on, which are buoyant. 

"The one victim that was trapped in the plane, they were trying to get her freed up, and one of them had to take off (his) exposure suit to swim below the surface," Painter said. "She was seatbelted in the overturned plane, and they got her out onto the float and began CPR," he said.

They were able to revive Heinze and transport her to South Peninsula Hospital, but she went into cardiac arrest during the medevac flight to Anchorage, Painter said.

Heinze was born in Oklahoma in 1946, before moving to Anchorage from 1951-1954, according to her legislative biography. She returned to Alaska in the mid-1980s, eventually settling in Anchorage, where she had lived since 1989.

Heinze was elected in 2002 as a Republican Representative of State House District 24 in Anchorage. She dropped out of her race for re-election in 2004, citing health issues.

A 2008 Anchorage Daily News article said that Heinze had been under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for allegedly soliciting utility jobs while still a legislator, but the investigation didn't lead to anything. Heinze said then that she had never spoken with the FBI in relation to the investigation and denied soliciting any positions from Railbelt utility companyies.

Democratic Rep. Berta Gardner has occupied Heinze's seat since that 2004 election. On Wednesday, Gardner said that she was "deeply saddened" by Heinze's death.

"She was strongly committed to helping people and making Anchorage and our state a better place," Gardner said in a statement. "Cheryll was a very sweet person who worked across party lines to get things done. She was my friend and I will miss her."

Her husband, Harold Heinze, is a former CEO of the Alaska Natural Gas Development Authority who now works for Matanuska Electric Association. Cheryll was director of public affairs for MEA, as well as an artist.

The plane was owned and piloted by 71-year-old Evan "Joe" Griffith, and registered in Eagle River. Joe Griffith is general manager at MEA. 

According to Kevin Brown, communications manager at MEA, all five people aboard were employees of the company. They were flying down Tuesday night to go fishing Wednesday, he said. Cheryll's husband was not aboard the plane, Brown said.

MEA released a brief statement Wednesday morning, and Brown called Heinze "an extraordinary human being."

"She was joy in human form," he said. " She loved everybody, she loved what she did."

Johnson said that the NTSB had investigators on the way to the scene Wednesday morning.

Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com