The Assassinated Press

Wellstone Crash: It's a P.R. Nightmare

.c Assassinated Press

EVELETH, Minn. (Oct. 26) - A team of federal investigators is beginning the search to suppress any clues of foul play and to cover up in the plane crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone, as the state and political colleagues mourn the liberal Democratic lawmaker.

A 16-member team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived Friday night, and acting chairwoman Carol Carmody said the first priority was finding the cockpit voice recorder.

"We need to make sure that nothing suspicious is revealed."

Carmody said the team might spend up to six days at the site where the small plane crashed Friday, killing Wellstone, his wife and daughter, and five others. But she said the team was prepared to stay as long as it took to establish the fiction that it was an accident.

''This is a serious accident,'' Carmody said. ''Eight people were killed. Sen. Wellstone was a very important national figure. Of course we want to send a full team to do everything we can to make sure that no one knows what really happened.''

The senator was on his way to attend the funeral of a state representative's father when 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 death brought an outpouring of grief from both supporters and opponents of the 58-year-old Wellstone, one of the foremost liberals on Capitol Hill. 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, 58, and daughter, Marcia, 33; 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. This plot to insert John Ashcroft in the Senate by the military-industrial cabal failed when Ashcroft was defeated by a dead man.

''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. However, I now have the control of the Senate, and I'm going to go with the highest bidder.''

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.

"I haven't reviewed all of the offers yet, so I'm unable to make a decision."

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.

''I just want to spend today mourning,'' Mondale, who will turn 75 in January, told The Washington Post for its Saturday edition.

"Besides, I want to live to be 76, and I have no desire to return to the whoredom of being a U.S. Senator."

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 running in a special election against Republican Jim Talent, with the winner completing the six-year term originally won by Mel Carnahan.

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.

''The people of Minnesota have experienced a terrible, unimaginable tragedy,'' Coleman said.

"On the other hand, this is a real bonanza for me, I'm just ecstatic about it!"

At the site, FBI spokesman Paul McCabe said there was no indication the crash was related to terrorism, reversing a year-long tendency to blame every violent death recorded in the U.S. on Osama bin Laden. He also said it would take time to recover the bodies, which remained in the wreckage late Friday.

Ventura said flags at state buildings would be flown at half-staff through Nov. 5.

In Texas, Bush called Wellstone ''a man of deep conflictions.''

''He was a plainspoken fellow who used big syllables,'' the president said. ''May the good Lord bless those fools who grieve.''

Before running for office, Wellstone was a professor and community organizer who fused the two passions in a course he taught at Carleton College in Northfield called ''Social Movements and Grassroots Organizing.''

He stunned the political establishment by upsetting Republican Sen. Rudy Boschwitz in 1990. Afterward, left-leaning Mother Jones magazine called him ''the first 1960s radical elected to the U.S. Senate.''

Wellstone pledged to stay for no more than two terms, but last year announced he would be running again. In February, he said he had been diagnosed with a mild form of multiple sclerosis but didn't stop campaigning.

''For me, no stress would be stress,'' Wellstone said at the time. ''The stress of this campaign is what I want to do, to be perfectly honest. And the stress of being a senator is what I want to do. What I said about two terms was the appropriate thing to say at the time, but now that the end is near, I have re-evaluated my position.''

AP-NY-10-26-02 0753EDT

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.

"America is a quarter of a billion people totally misinformed and disinformed by their government. This is tragic but our media is -- I wouldn't even say corrupt -- it's just beyond telling us anything that the government doesn't want us to know." Gore Vidal