This is our own Steve Rukavina's family. Ourcondolences Steve to you and your family.
Editor-in-Chief &a friend
By The Associated Press
EVELETH, Minn. - Sen. Paul Wellstone, his wife, daughter and aides were flying here Friday to pay respects to the relatives of Martin "Benny" Rukavina, a longtime Democratic activist and union member who died Tuesday.
Relatives and friends who attended Rukavina's funeral learned a short time after it finished Friday afternoon that Wellstone's plane crashed just before it reached Eveleth.
"My family feels terrible about this," said Rukavina's son Thomas, a state representative.
He said he was stunned by the news delivered at an already emotional time. "It's a sad day for Minnesota. A sad day for the people of Minnesota," Rukavina said. "I knew I was trying to bury my dad and my mind was occupied with that tragedy too."
Later Friday, Rukavina went to the DFL campaign headquarters in Eveleth and spoke further about the Wellstones.
"Paul and Sheila really did love the Iron Range," he said. "I know he was going to get re-elected and work hard to make sure the injustices by corporate America would be addressed."
Iron Rangers mourn 'our champion'
Richard Meryhew and Randy Furst
EVELETH, MINN. -- He wasn't one of them, but he might as well have been.
From the moment Paul Wellstone set foot on the Iron Range in his first racefor U.S. Senate in 1990 to the morning he died in a wooded marsh southeastof town, the people of this region embraced him.
"When Paul ran his first campaign, he was just adopted as a Ranger," saidJim Gorski, a DFL party coordinator in Eveleth. "Everybody liked him. He wasa fighter for the person who carried the lunch pail. He was our champion."
In the snow and drizzle of an overcast afternoon, the blue-collar miners andsteelworkers of the Iron Range mourned their loss of the U.S. senator whomthey viewed not only as their champion, but as their friend.
"It's just been a day of disbelief," said Jerry Fallos, who represents theformer union workers at the LTV steel plant, which shut down last year.
Wellstone and his wife, Sheila, and daughter, Marcia Markuson, were amongeight people who died Friday when their plane crashed within 2 miles of theEveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport. They were on their way to a funeral forthe father of state Rep. Tom Rukavina, DFL-Virginia, a friend of Wellstone's.
Rukavina said that he was unaware of the tragedy until the funeral forBennie Rukavina was over and he was waiting in a limousine to take thefamily to the cemetery for a private burial. The priest asked him to stepout of the limousine and told him that there had been a plane crash and thatWellstone might be aboard. "It's kind of surreal," Rukavina said Fridaynight.
He said not only had his father, who had helped organize Iron Rangesteelworkers in the 1930s, died, but now Wellstone. "We lost two men ofintegrity," Rukavina said.
News at the airport
Lisa Pattni, northern Minnesota director for the Wellstone campaign, hadgone to the airport to pick up the Wellstone party for the funeral. When twopolice cars showed up after a long wait, she knew something was wrong. "Iwas thinking someone had a heart attack on the plane," she said.
It wasn't until a local fire chief and airport pilot who had flown over thecrash site told her what they had seen that she knew it was worse.
She called a friend, Ann Olson, who also worked on the Wellstone campaign.
"She said, 'Start praying,' " Olson said. "I said 'Why?' She said 'There's aplane down and it's burning and we think it's theirs.' "
Said Pattni, "We were hoping there was a chance that someone would come outof the plane, but the indications we got were it didn't look good."
Not long after, she called Wellstone's campaign manager in St. Paul to givehim the bad news.
Word quickly spread in the adjoining towns of Eveleth and Virginia, whichare about 175 miles from the Twin Cities. They talked about it at localbanks, at the coffee shops and down at J and M Mechanics, an auto repairshop in Eveleth.
"We can't replace Paul and Sheila," said Dennis Frazier, a social workerfrom nearby Zim, who had planned to help distribute Wellstone campaignliterature in Hibbing, Chisholm and Virginia this weekend.
Larry Asbach, retired publisher of the Mesabi Daily News, was eating dinnerat the Sawmill Saloon in Virginia. "It's almost like hearing that Kennedywas assassinated," he said. "This is really Wellstone country up here. He'sbeen up here often."
He came to Fourth of July parades and local high school graduations.
He campaigned for local politicians and shook hands with local steelworkers.
Along the way he won their trust, and their vote.
Hugs, tears and pizza
Fallos and about a dozen former LTV steelworkers had planned to put up about250 lawn signs for Wellstone this weekend. Friday night, they had planned towork the phones on the senator's behalf.
But all that changed Friday morning.
That he'd take time out of a tight and tense Senate campaign to attendBennie Rukavina's funeral was typical Wellstone.
"This probably wouldn't have happened to a less compassionate man," Fallossaid. "In the middle of a campaign, he took the time to attend the funeralof the father of one of his friends."
By early afternoon, 35 to 40 people gathered at the DFL headquarters at theOld Rustic Rock restaurant in Eveleth to console one another and share intheir grief.
They hugged, they cried, they tried to laugh. By late in the day, exhaustionset in, and the numbers dwindled.
A single red rose was placed atop several pizza boxes, most of which stayedunopened.
When prime-time TV news flashed scenes of a younger Wellstone campaigning in1990, they giggled.
When the TV flashed footage of the senator next to his wife, they gasped andcried some more.
With crumpled tissues, they wiped away tears. By late in the day, theyslowly made their way home.
Fallos, of Gilbert, Minn., and Gorski were among the few to stay, answeringcalls and talking about better days.
Fallos met Wellstone when LTV management announced in May 2000 that theplant was going to close. That afternoon, Wellstone called and talked withFallos on the phone.
Two days later, Wellstone was on the Range talking to the workers whose jobs and incomes were in jeopardy.
"We spent a lot of time together," Fallos said. "Whenever he was in the area he'd call me to see what I was doing. Or he'd call me to see if I'd be interested in picking him up at the airport."
Added Gorski, "He'll always be there for us. And he'll always be a Ranger."