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Fourth family member – an 11-year-old girl – found dead after Alaska landslide, authorities say


By Taylor Romine, Susannah Cullinane and Alberto Moya, CNN

(CNN) — Search crews in southern Alaska have found the body of a missing 11-year-old girl following a landslide that killed three of her family members, Alaska’s Department of Public Safety announced Sunday.

A K9 scent detection unit indicated an area of interest on Saturday, and with the help of an excavator, searchers located Kara Heller’s remains in the debris field, according to the department.

Authorities on Friday released the names of the three other Heller family members killed as well as of people still missing after the November 20 landslide in Wrangell that hit the Zimovia Highway and destroyed three homes.

Sixteen-year-old Mara Heller was found dead during initial search and rescue efforts on November 20, and the bodies of 44-year-old Timothy Heller and 36-year-old Beth Heller were discovered the next day, according to the public safety department.

Otto Florschutz, 65, and one other Heller relative – 12-year-old Derek – are still listed as missing, Alaska officials said.

Loved ones of the missing and dead were notified, and the remains of those killed were sent to the medical examiner’s office for an autopsy, the public safety department said Friday.

Authorities said the state’s medical examiner’s office has been notified of the discovery of Kara’s body.

The search for the missing people who may be buried in the slide area moved “from an active search to a reactive search” on Thursday.

Authorities on Friday said they were working to clear the road of debris and have a scent detection K9 team “on standby to resume searching if new information or evidence” is found.

“While the active search is concluding, it remains a priority of the State of Alaska and your Alaska State Troopers to locate the three missing Alaskans so that we can bring closure to their families and the community,” Thursday’s news release said. “Our deepest sympathies are with the families, friends, and loved ones of the three deceased and three missing Alaskans.”

Officials conducted three search efforts in the area, where they used “drones, helicopters, and planes; ground teams with K9 scent detection dogs and trained professionals; and water-based searching with K9 teams and sonar,” the Department of Public Safety said Thursday.

Alaska’s Department of Transportation said the landslide’s path grew to an estimated 450 feet wide and had a significant debris field.

The area where the landslide struck had been particularly wet the day before and the day of the natural disaster, with more than 3 inches of rain falling around Wrangell in the prior 24 hours, Andy Park, a National Weather Service meteorologist in Juneau, told CNN.

Park said winds of 61 to 87 mph evening of November 20 may have been a factor in the landslides as well.

The region of southeast Alaska is already at risk for debris flows, according to Barrett Salisbury, a geologist with the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys. Heavy rainfall, rapid snowmelt or saturated soil only increase the risk, he said during a news conference.

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy issued a disaster declaration in Wrangell on November 21 due to the landslide’s effects, his office posted on social media.

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