ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola’s husband has died in an airplane crash in western Alaska, the latest fatality involving politicians or their loved ones in the nation’s largest state where flights are common because of a limited road system.
“We are devastated to share that Mary’s husband, Eugene Peltola Jr. — ′Buzzy’ to all of us who knew and loved him — passed away earlier this morning following a plane accident in Alaska,” her chief of staff, Anton McParland, said in the statement issued Wednesday morning.
Peltola, a Yup’ik who became the first Alaska Native elected to Congress last year, was returning home to be with her family, the statement said. McParland asked that the family be allowed privacy to grieve.
The Piper PA-18-150 Super Cub appears to have crashed under unknown circumstances upon takeoff after he dropped off a hunter and equipment about 65 miles (105 kilometers) northeast of St. Mary’s, National Transportation Safety Board chairperson Jennifer Homendy said during a news conference.
Alaska State Troopers identified Peltola, 57, as the pilot and plane’s sole occupant in a statement. Two hunters who were at the scene but not involved in the crash provided medical care to Peltola.
The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center dispatched an Alaska Air National Guard rescue team to the site, arriving early Wednesday morning, but troopers said Peltola had died before they arrived.
The rescue team returned Peltola and the two uninjured hunters to Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson in Anchorage. Peltola’s body was delivered to the State Medical Examiner’s Office for an autopsy.
Homendy described the crash site area about 450 miles (724 kilometers) west of Anchorage as “a remote location, a mountainous area.” She said interviewing the witnesses to the crash would be part of the investigation.
It was not immediately known where the plane took off from or where it was headed before the crash, she said.
The Alaska Rescue Coordination Center received an emergency locator transmitter signal at 8:48 p.m. Tuesday, 18 minutes after sunset, Homendy said.
The closest weather observation office was in St. Mary’s, so an NTSB meteorologist is investigating weather conditions closer to the crash site.
An accident investigation team was en route Wednesday with the Alaska Air National Guard providing helicopter transportation to get investigators to the remote site.
Peltola received his commercial pilot’s license in 2004, requiring him to use corrective lenses at all distances, according to a Federal Aviation Administration database. The plane’s FAA registry shows the Super Cub was manufactured in 1952 and Bruce Werba of Holy Cross, Alaska, is the owner.
Werba and his wife, Connie, own Alaska Pike Safaris and Wilderness Adventures, which offers trophy brown bear and moose hunts and pike fishing in western Alaska.
Connie Werba declined comment to The Associated Press when reached by phone Wednesday.
Condolence poured in for Peltola, a former Alaska regional director for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, a longtime employee of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a city council member in Bethel and an Alaska Native leader.
In a statement late Wednesday, President Joe Biden said he had spoken with Mary Peltola and expressed condolences.
“Buzzy was a devoted public servant and in the tributes coming from all over the state today, he is being remembered as a friend to all,” Biden said. “But we know he was, first and always, the adored and devoted husband and father to a family now in pain.”
Gov. Mike Dunleavy said he and first lady Rose Dunleavy were “deeply saddened” by the death of their former neighbor in the western Alaska community of Kotzebue.
“He dedicated his career to public service,” Dunleavy said in a statement. “Gene always worked to ensure government worked for Alaskans.”
The Bristol Bay Native Corp. extended sympathies to the congresswoman and their family. “Eugene was a devoted husband and father, a treasured friend, and a passionate servant both in his years of federal service and local leadership,” it said in a statement.
U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski said in a post on the X platform, formerly known as Twitter, that she was beyond words to express her grief.
“Anyone who met Buzzy felt his warmth, generosity and charm. It was easy to see why so many Alaskans called him a friend, and how he was so loved by his family,” she wrote.
Mary Peltola last year became the first Alaska Native in Congress by defeating former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, in ranked vote special and general elections following the death of U.S. Rep. Don Young. The Republican Young had held Alaska’s sole House seat for 49 years until his death.
Several prominent Alaska politicians have died in plane crashes, including former U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens in 2010 and one of Peltola’s predecessors, U.S. Rep. Nick Begich, a Democrat. Begich and U.S. Rep. Hale Boggs of Louisiana, the majority leader in the U.S. House, were presumed dead after their plane went missing while flying from Anchorage to Juneau in 1972.
State Rep. Gary Knopp died in a mid-air collision in 2020. Stevens’ first wife, Ann, died in a plane crash in Anchorage in 1978.