Troopers end active search, name Wrangell landslide victims

Three people reported dead in 450-foot wide landslide that took out three homes, according to authorities
3 people found dead, 1 alive in Wrangell landslide, landslide risk remains high
Published: Nov. 21, 2023 at 5:57 AM AKST|Updated: Nov. 24, 2023 at 11:12 AM AKST
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WRANGELL, Alaska (KTUU) - The Alaska State Troopers announced on Thanksgiving morning active search and rescue operations have been suspended for one adult and two minors still missing after a large landslide struck the tiny Southeast town of Wrangell, stranding dozens of homes from the main town of Wrangell.

The six victims — three dead and three still missing — were identified Friday morning by the Department of Public Safety.

Those who died include 44-year-old Timothy Heller, 36-year-old Beth Heller, and 16-year-old Mara Heller.

Those who are still missing include 65-year-old Otto Florschutz, 12-year-old Derek Heller, and 11-year-old Kara Heller.

The bodies of those who died were found by authorities during the dayslong search and rescue effort that followed the natural disaster that buried roughly 450 feet of the roadway under debris near milepost 11 of the Zimovia Highway on Monday evening.

Troopers said Wednesday that teams made up of K9s and ground searchers on foot and others were working to search areas that state geologists determined as safe for entry.

In total, authorities conducted three separate active search efforts since the landslide barreled across the highway and into the ocean. Troopers said search efforts were conducted in the air, on the ground and on the water, and employed many different tools to try to find the missing, including drones, helicopters, and sonar, reaching “all areas accessible without the use of heavy machinery.”

Areas of the slide were reportedly unstable and active, and the public was asked not to access the slide zone.

“Anytime a disaster happens – we saw it during the earthquake several years ago here in Southcentral Alaska – everybody wants to show up,” said AST’s Austin McDaniel in an interview Wednesday afternoon. “That’s kind of our Alaskan way. What we don’t want to see is people that are meaning well, showing up to the slide zone, entering it without registering, entering without knowing where the safe areas are, and trying to help. We want folks to reach out through the Wrangell Police Department, get registered, and we will get you somewhere put to work so you can really help us.”

Department of Public Safety provided photo of the landslide near Wrangell, Alaska.
Department of Public Safety provided photo of the landslide near Wrangell, Alaska.(Courtesy Department of Public Safety)

The focus will now shift to clearing the roadway, with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities stepping in to help.

“While the active search is concluding, it remains a priority of the State of Alaska and your Alaska State Troopers to locate the three missing Alaskans so that we can bring closure to their families and the community. Our deepest sympathies are with the families, friends, and loved ones of the three deceased and three missing Alaskans,” troopers wrote on Thanksgiving morning.

Of the three homes thought to have been impacted by the slide, two were on the mountainside, and one of those was empty when the slide occurred, according to troopers. One of the mountainside residences was empty at the time of the slide, officials said.

A residence on the water was said to have had two adults and three minors in it, including Mara Heller, who was the first to be found dead Monday night.

“When they were out there doing the hasty search, they discovered a deceased juvenile female,” AST’s Austin McDaniel explained. “Once the conditions became too dangerous to continue the hasty search, teams pulled back... Sometime between last night, when the hasty search was paused, to when ground searchers returned, the adult female was found alive.”

The woman found Tuesday was last said to be in good condition and still receiving medical care as of Tuesday afternoon.

Wrangell Landslide Press Briefing

We apologize for the technical difficulties on the live streamed press conference about the Wrangell landslide. A recording of the press conference is available here.

Posted by Alaska State Troopers on Tuesday, November 21, 2023

The City and Borough of Wrangell posted in a social media message that “ongoing” search and rescue missions were underway as of 3:45 a.m. Tuesday due to the landslide Monday night that left debris scattered on the Zimovia Highway at milepost 11. The road runs roughly 14 miles from the town of Wrangell, which has a population of a little more than 2,000 residents.

Alaska State Troopers reported early on that a person was found dead in the slide debris during the initial hours of what they called a “hasty search.” On Tuesday afternoon, troopers said that the initial search included multiple Wrangell agencies, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Forest Service, and others.

As for the woman who was found Tuesday morning, troopers said that the woman lived in one of the residences on the mountainside of the highway and was on the upper level of the home when the landslide happened. She is said to be in “good” condition, according to troopers, and is receiving medical care.

No other details were shared about the minor who was killed by the slide, which occurred just before 9 p.m. Monday night.

Wrangell landslide death toll increases to 3 as search and rescue operation continues
Wrangell landslide death toll increases to 3 as search and rescue operation continues(Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)

A drone operator on Tuesday afternoon found the other two victims killed by the slide — both adults — who were recovered from the slide area in the evening. Troopers said that search and rescue K9 teams from Juneau’s Southeast Alaska Dogs Organized for Ground Search (SEADOGS) and Wrangell Search and Rescue conducted the ground search Tuesday evening.

It also remains unclear how many people were displaced because of the slide, but estimates put that number at about a dozen, officials said during the Tuesday press conference.

Wrangell landslide death toll increases to 3 as search and rescue operation continues
Wrangell landslide death toll increases to 3 as search and rescue operation continues(Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)

The Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities said in a social post that the slide is estimated to have covered roughly 450 feet of roadway near Pat Creek and has cut off about 75 homes from the rest of Wrangell. Power has also been cut from the homes.

Authorities said a local search and rescue team was working with officials from the troopers, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Forest Service, workers with the Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities, and city staff.

The city also said it has not begun a “large scale” search operation as the landslide area could still be unstable and volatile. It said a state geologist will need to assess the slide to determine if it’s safe enough to launch full search operations.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration Tuesday morning for Wrangell, saying that he and the first lady are “heartbroken” for those affected by the landslide.

Eric Yancey with Breakaway Ferry and Freight, LLC., in Wrangell told a reporter that he used one of his boats, a 75-foot landing craft, to help light the waters around the landslide site late Monday night to help rescue crews search for survivors.

Yancey said he also used his boat to ferry multiple residents who were stranded on the other side of the slide to the town of Wrangell. Yancey said he ultimately ended up taking 19 people on board his boat and didn’t dock in Wrangell until around 4 a.m., hours after he took his boat out.

“It was raining pretty hard, still pretty gusty, you know, hitting some 20 — 30 mile an hour winds, potentially, while we were doing this,” he said.

Wrangell landslide death toll increases to 3 as search and rescue operation continues
Wrangell landslide death toll increases to 3 as search and rescue operation continues(Courtesy Alaska Department of Transportation and Public Facilities)

For a community that is accustomed to hearing about landslides in Southeast Alaska, Yancey said the moment was still unnerving for residents, recounting the story told by one person whose house was in the vicinity of the slide.

“They’re in the house and he just started hearing this rumbling, and they just described it as it sounded, like maybe a jet was going to be crashing on their house or right next to it,” Yancey said. “They went running outside. And then after probably a few moments, we realized what was happening.”

The names of the three victims found dead will be released on Friday.

State officials said those looking for shelter can contact the following locations:

  • Stikine Inn: (907) 874-3388
  • Sourdough Lodge: (907) 305-1095
  • Trident Bunkhouse: (907) 874-3346

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with additional information.

This is a developing story. Check back for further updates.