EVELETH -- Investigators returned to the scene Saturday of a plane crash that killed Sen. Paul Wellstone to begin the grim task of determining what caused the accident, as the state and political colleagues mourned 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 from the wreckage, which might provide possible clues to the crash, which killed Wellstone, his wife and daughter, and five others.
Carmody said Saturday morning the NTSB would be at the site for four to six days, but it could take months to determine why the chartered twin-engine King Air A-100 crashed.
"We're very meticulous, and it takes us time to sort through the evidence," she said.
Part of the process will be removing the bodies. Kevin Smith, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, said that task was expected to begin Saturday morning. Smith said that once the bodies have been removed, the site would be opened to relatives of the victims who have expressed interest in visiting the site.
Carmody said investigators would begin identifying pieces of the plane and collecting evidence to determine the cause of the crash. The tail of the plane was intact, but the rest of the plane was destroyed, she said. She also said it was unknown whether the plane was destroyed in the crash or by the fire afterward.
The landscape where the plane went down, which is two miles from the airport and several hundred yards from the closest paved road, will make the job harder.
"It's a complicated site, very marshy, lots of trees," Carmody said.
Investigators will examine trees in the area to look for damage that may indicate the angle of the plane's descent before it crashed, she said. And investigators will review records to determine if the weather a factor in the crash.
"We have some people who've identified themselves as witnesses and we will be talking to them," she added.
The senator was on his way to attend the funeral of a state representative's father when the plane went down about 10 a.m. Friday in freezing rain and light snow near the Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport, about 175 miles north of Minneapolis.
The National Weather Service had issued an advisory to pilots that occasional moderate icing conditions were possible in the area. The airport's assistant manager, Gary Ulman, said the wreckage was not on the usual approach to the runway, suggesting the pilot might have aborted the landing.
The senator's 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 Friday 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."
The victims also included Wellstone's wife, Sheila, and daughter, Marcia; campaign staff members Will McLaughlin, Tom Lapic and Mary McEvoy; pilot Richard Conry and co-pilot Michael Guess.
"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."
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 candidate if a nominee dies. In this case, the name must be offered by next Thursday.
Ventura's spokesman, John Wodele, said Saturday that the governor hopes to decide by Monday morning, if not sooner, how he'll proceed.
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.
Ventura said flags at state buildings would be flown at half-staff through Nov. 5.
In Texas, Bush called Wellstone "a man of deep convictions."
"He was a plainspoken fellow who did his best for his state and for his country," the president said. "May the good Lord bless those 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."
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