Homer Alaska - News

Story last updated at 4:44 PM on Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Beluga Lake plane crash kills one

Staff Writers


Cheryll Heinze

A former Alaska legislator died from injuries in a floatplane crash on Beluga Lake Tuesday night.

Cheryll Heinze, 65, of Anchorage was pronounced dead in Homer just as she was being medevaced to Anchorage.

The pilot was hospitalized, but the three other survivors had minor injuries and were treated and released from South Peninsula Hospital.

Heinze represented Anchorage House District 24 in the 23rd Alaska State Legislature. She was elected in 2002 and served in 2003 and 2004. She was married to former Alaska Department of Natural Resources commissioner Harold Heinze, who also served as the chief executive officer of the Alaska Natural Gas Development Authority.

According to an Alaska State Trooper press release, a Cessna 206 floatplane piloted by Evan Griffith, 71, of Anchorage, crashed and flipped while landing on Beluga Lake.

Four passengers were on board. All were pulled from the plane or got out on their own, but Heinze had been trapped underwater before being rescued.

Also in the plane were Tony Zellers, 49, Eddie Taunton, 52, and Tony Izzo, 51.

Mary Ellen Ulrich, who lives on the north side of Beluga Lake, said she heard the plane hit the water about 10:20 p.m. July 10 and then saw an Emerald Air plane go to the crash site. Ulrich said she heard the crash because she went outside to move her plants when the wind picked up. Ulrich saw several people clinging to and standing on the upside down plane. Although shallow in parts, Beluga Lake in that area was too deep to stand on, said Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bob Painter. HVFD medics responded in a rescue boat.

"Right away. They came fast," Ulrich said.

Everyone was out except Heinze by the time emergency medical technicians and rescuers got to the crash site, Painter said.


Photographer: Michael Armstrong, Homer News

The crashed Cessna 206 rests on the bottom of the lake with floats up on Wednesday morning as workers examine the wreck.

Another witness, Victoria Weakland, saw medics responding as she drove across the Beluga Lake causeway to her home on Lakeshore Drive. Weakland said a medic sitting on a plane float worked on a woman as the Emerald Air plane went to the south side of Beluga Lake and an ambulance at the bottom of Douglas Street near Homer Floatplane Lodge.

"Once they got her out, they were doing chest compressions the whole way out," Weakland said.

Painter said medics also did cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Heinze all the way to the hospital and got a pulse. Later, an ambulance crew took her to the Homer Airport to meet a medevac plane, but Heinze went into cardiac arrest on the plane and died.

Heinze was director of human resources and public affairs for the Matanuska Electric Association. She had been traveling to Homer with members of MEA senior staff on the plane. Griffith is the MEA general manager and owned the plane, said MEA spokesman Kevin Brown, but he did not want to comment on whether the plane was on MEA business or a recreational trip until family members of other MEA staff had been contacted.

According to MEA's website, Zellers is the director of the Elkutna Generation Station Project and Izzo is the fuel supply manager.

Beluga Lake remained closed to floatplane traffic as of mid-morning Wednesday, according to Rick Feller of the state Department of Transportation. He expected it would stay closed through the day.

The plane had stopped briefly in Kenai before heading to Homer from Anchorage, said National Transportation Safety Board investigator Clint Johnson. Johnson said in his 15 years in Alaska he can't recall another serious float plane crash on Beluga Lake. In late May 2000, a Cessna 185 piloted by Jon Faulkner flipped while taxiing on the lake, but no one was seriously injured.

Two NTSB investigators went to Homer on Wednesday to begin an inquiry into the crash. As of press time on Wednesday afternoon, no cause had been determined.

Legislators who knew Heinze praised her service. Speaker of the House Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski called her "an engaged, informed and passionate legislator" and said she focused on issues including victim's rights, energy and fisheries.

"Cheryl was a tremendous, accomplished woman," he said "She had a light smile and an easy way about her that made her popular not only inside, but outside the Capitol. ... Tanna and I will keep Harold in our thoughts and prayers during this dark time and ask others to do the same."

Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, said, "She was a very friendly, very outgoing person."

Rep. Berta Gardner, D-Anchorage, who serves in the seat previously held by Heinze, said, "I am deeply saddened by Cheryl's tragic death. She was strongly committed to helping people and making Anchorage and our state a better place. Cheryl was a very sweet person who worked across party lines to get things done. She was my friend and I will miss her. Our thoughts and prayers are with her family, especially with her husband Harold."

Heinze was born Oct. 30, 1946, in Wewoka, Okla., and lived in Anchorage from 1951-54 and from 1989 to the present. She also lived in Talkeetna, Valdez and Tok. An artist and writer, she got a teaching certificate from East Central University, Ada, Okla., and a bachelor of arts from Alaska Pacific University. She was an art instructor at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Before being elected to the legislature, she was a deputy commissioner for the Department of Natural Resources. Heinze was active in community organizations, including the Anchorage Women's Club, the Alaska Chamber of Commerce, the Anchorage Symphony League and Breast Cancer Focus Inc.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com. McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at mckibben.jackinsky@homernews.com.