Rep. Gary Knopp, who represented the Kenai-Soldotna area in the Alaska Legislature, was one of seven people killed Friday morning in a midair collision of two small planes near Soldotna.
Knopp was the sole occupant of one plane. The other plane was flown by a local pilot, and carried a guide from Kansas and four people from South Carolina. The other victims were Greg Bell, a pilot from Soldotna and owner of High Adventure Air Charter; David Rogers, a guide from Kansas; Caleb Hulsey, Heather Hulsey, Mackay Hulsey and Kirstin Wright, all from South Carolina.
The crash, which took place just before 8:30 a.m., temporarily closed the Sterling Highway at Mile 91.5 so that it could be cleared, according a Friday morning Facebook post from Kenai Peninsula Borough’s Office of Emergency Management.
Alaska State Troopers reported six of the seven people were pronounced dead at the scene of the accident. The seventh person died while being transported to a hospital.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the fatal accident.
The news of Knopp’s passing was first announced by the Alaska House Majority — of which Knopp was a member — in a press release sent just before noon on Friday.
“I’m devastated and shocked to learn of the crash that claimed Gary Knopp’s life,” House Speaker Bryce Edgmon said in the release. “Gary was a one-of-a-kind leader and a true Alaskan who worked tirelessly for his district in the Legislature. He will be missed by many.”
Edgmon also spoke to the Clarion Friday about his relationship with Knopp and the impact of his passing.
“One of the things I really appreciate about Gary, perhaps the most, was that as a legislator he always put the interests of Alaska first,” Edgmon said. “In the face of the stiffest political headwinds imaginable, Gary Knopp didn’t yield an inch.”
During his career as an elected representative, Knopp faced pushback at times even from his own party, including in May of last year when Knopp was censured by the Alaska Republican Party for joining a majority coalition with Democratic representatives in the House.
Alaska’s House Republicans released a statement following Knopp’s death recognizing his impact as a lawmaker.
“My family and I are saddened to hear of the passing of Gary Knopp,” Minority Leader Lance Pruitt said in the press release. “I have served with Gary for four years and have appreciated his service to our state. Prayers of comfort for his family and constituents during this time of grief.”
Shea Siegert, who worked as a staffer for Knopp during his time in the Legislature and also worked on Knopp’s election campaign in the past, spoke to the Clarion on Friday as he was on his way to Kenai from Anchorage to be with Knopp’s family.
“Gary was a role model to me and to many,” Siegert said. “And he taught a lot of people what true leadership was.”
Sen. Peter Micciche, who represents many of the same constituents as Knopp in the Alaska Senate, said he heard the crash from his house Friday morning and immediately expected the worst.
“Of course in a community like this you know you’re going to know someone. It’s rare for something like that where you don’t,” Micciche said. “But I certainly didn’t expect that it was Greg Bell from High Adventure Air and Gary Knopp, our representative, plus passengers. So it’s a little bit more horrific than usual, although none of them are ever good. It’s pretty rough. I’m definitely still a little bit in a state of shock.”
Fellow House member and Kenai Peninsula lawmaker Rep. Ben Carpenter, R-Nikiski, told the Clarion on Friday that his thoughts were with Knopp’s family and the families of the six others who lost their lives in the crash.
“Politics separate us, but we’re human beings and we care for each other,” Carpenter said. “I wish his family the best and I hope the good Lord blesses them with peace and comfort during this difficult time.”
In remembrance of Knopp, Gov. Mike Dunleavy ordered both the U.S. flag and the Alaska state flag to be flown at half-staff until sunset on Monday.
“The First Lady and I wish to express our heartfelt condolences to Representative Knopp’s family as they mourn his untimely passing,” Dunleavy said in a press release. “Throughout his 42 years on the Kenai Peninsula, Gary became well known as an avid outdoorsman, a skilled pilot, and a dedicated public servant. His presence will no doubt be missed by those he faithfully served.”
Knopp was 63 when he died. He is survived by his wife, Helen.
Originally from Whitefish, Montana, Knopp moved to Alaska in 1979, according to his biography on the Alaska Legislature’s website.
Knopp’s first role in public office was as a member of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly, where he served from 2006 to 2012. He was assembly president from 2010 to 2012. Knopp served on the borough assembly once more in 2015 before he was elected to represent District 30 in Alaska’s House of Representatives in 2016.
Knopp was up for reelection this year and was facing a primary challenge from three other republicans: James Baisden, Ron Gillham and Kelly Wolf.
Knopp’s name will still be on the primary ballot. It is unclear what will happen if he wins the election or whether the Legislature will need to appoint a replacement for the remainder of the Legislative session. Edgmon and Micciche both said that the time for making those decisions would come later, and for now they were focused on sending their condolences to Knopp’s family.