EVELETH, Minn. — Sen. Paul Wellstone, the passionately liberal Democrat whose re-election campaign was vital to control of the Senate, was killed in a plane crash in northern Minnesota on Friday along with his wife, daughter and five others.
The crash came just 11 days before the election. Stunned party officials said it was too early to discuss replacing Wellstone on the ballot.
The twin-engine private plane went down about 10 a.m. in freezing rain and light snow near the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport, about 175 miles north of Minneapolis. A pilot in the area said the plane seemed to have veered away from the usual approach to the airport.
“It’s just terrible. Say a prayer,” said Lisa Pattni, an aide at the crash site.
The wreckage was still smoldering several hours after the crash in a wooded, swampy area two miles from the airport and several hundred yards from the closest paved road. The National Transportation Safety Board sent a nine-member team to determine the cause of the accident.
Wellstone, a 58-year-old former college professor and one of the foremost liberals on Capitol Hill, was on his way to a funeral.
The death brought an outpouring of grief from supporters and opponents alike. In St. Paul, thousands of mourners stood in a cold rain to pay tribute at the Capitol and outside the senator’s headquarters. Many wept.
“It doesn’t seem real,” said Tom Collins, who had done volunteer work for the Wellstone campaign. “It’s a nightmare.”
All eight people aboard the 11-seat King Air A-100 were killed, said Greg Martin, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. Campaign officials confirmed the victims included Wellstone’s wife, Sheila, and daughter, Marcia; three campaign staff members; and two pilots.
The last senator to die in office was Sen. Paul Coverdell, a 61-year-old Georgia Republican who died of a stroke two years ago.
“Today the state of Minnesota has suffered a deep and penetrating loss,” Gov. Jesse Ventura said. “With all of us suffering from the numbing experiences of our nation’s recent tragedies, this loss seems especially cruel.”
Wellstone’s death threw the battle for the Senate into uncharted territory. Before Friday, Democrats held control by a single seat.
Minnesota law allows the governor to fill a vacant Senate seat, but it also allows a political party to pick a replacement if a nominee dies. In this case, the name must be offered by next Thursday.
Ventura wouldn’t say what he would do, saying only that he would not appoint himself to serve the rest of Wellstone’s term in the lame-duck session of Congress between Election Day and the arrival of new members.
Shaken Democratic officials wouldn’t comment on possible replacements. Rebecca Yanisch, the state trade commissioner who ran for Senate in 2000, indicated she might be interested, while former Sen. Walter Mondale didn’t take questions at an appearance and didn’t return a call seeking comment.
Two years ago, Missouri Gov. Mel Carnahan, his son and an aide were killed in a crash three weeks before Election Day as he campaigned for the Senate. His name remained on the ballot and he beat Republican Sen. John Ashcroft. Carnahan’s widow, Jean, was appointed to serve in his place and is now seeking a full term against Republican Jim Talent.
Mrs. Carnahan canceled campaign appearances Friday and called Wellstone’s death “heartbreaking news.”
Wellstone was up against Republican Norm Coleman, a former mayor of St. Paul and President Bush’s choice to challenge the two-term incumbent.
Coleman, who was scheduled to debate Wellstone on Friday night, immediately suspended campaign activities. He said he, his wife and father were flying to a campaign stop in the same part of Minnesota when they learned his opponent had been killed.
“We prayed on the plane. We hugged, the staff cried,” Coleman said. “The people of Minnesota have experienced a terrible, unimaginable tragedy.”
Wellstone had leased the Beech King Air turboprop for the flight to the town of Virginia for the funeral of state Rep. Tom Rukavina’s father.
The pilots called the Eveleth-Virginia airport to get clearance for landing when they were about seven miles out and they reported no problems, said Gary Ulman, who was on duty at the airport at the time.
When the plane didn’t land, Ulman said, he took off in a plane to search for it. He soon saw smoke.