Wrangell search suspended for 12-year-old boy still missing in deadly landslide

a landslide
An overhead view of the fatal Wrangell slide, which closed the Zimovia Highway near Mile 11. (From State of Alaska)

The City and Borough of Wrangell has suspended the search for 12-year-old Derek Heller, the only person left missing from the Nov. 20 landslide that left five people dead.

The decision, announced Wednesday afternoon, follows 15 days of searching and clearing landslide debris by the Wrangell Volunteer Fire Department, numerous support volunteers, K-9 scent dogs and local equipment operators.

Kale Casey, a spokesperson for the Alaska Interagency Incident Management Team, has been at the landslide site with responders. He said the teams all came together with one mission.

“The search has been absolutely monumental,” Casey said. “It’s a very dangerous slide path. They mitigated a lot of risks, they operated incredibly safely for days, 15 days in a row, day and night — a lot of courage being there.”

Searchers found the remains of five people: 65-year-old Otto Florschutz and the Heller family – Timothy Heller, 44, Beth Heller, 36, Mara Heller, 16, and Kara Heller, 11. They also found one survivor – 63-year-old Christina Florschutz, Otto’s wife.

The slide was 4,000 feet long. The bottom of it stretched into the water, which complicated the search. The slide around the destroyed homes was about 450 feet wide.

Casey said searchers had to work through “endless amounts of clay and slippery surfaces”. He says responders reached all accessible areas above and into the intertidal zone.

“They want to find Derek and bring closure to the family,” he said. “When you exhaust all your search areas, when you circle back and check them again, when you’re doing the kind of work they’re doing. There is a point where your search areas have been searched. And that’s where they got.”

According to Wednesday’s statement, Search and Rescue volunteers and a K-9 scent detection team will be available if there are any new leads or evidence in specific areas in the future.

Previous articleCommittee dismisses ethics complaints against 2 Alaska lawmakers
Next articleAlaska News Nightly: Wednesday, December 6, 2023