NEW YORK – Tributes poured in Friday after news spread of the tragic death of Sen. Paul Wellstone, D-Minn.
Wellstone, his wife Sheila, their daughter Marcia, three campaign workers and two pilots all died when Wellstone’s chartered twin engine King Air A-100 turbo-prop plane crashed en route from St. Paul to Eveleth-Virginia Municipal Airport, north of Duluth.
Flags in Washington and Minnesota were immediately lowered to half-staff as a prayer vigil was arranged in Minnesota's capital rotunda in St. Paul.
President Bush, who was at his ranch in Crawford, Texas at the time, said Wellstone did his best for his country, calling him a "man of deep convictions."
"Our prayers and heartfelt sympathy goes to their sons, their loved ones, their friends and the people of Minnesota," Bush said. "Paul Wellstone was a man of deep convictions. He was a plain-spoken fellow who did his best for his state and for his country. May the good Lord bless those who grieve."
Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who was meeting with the president, also expressed his condolences.
Lawmakers from both sides of the political aisle called Wellstone a great friend and a true champion of Minnesotans.
"Paul Wellstone was the soul of the Senate. He was one of the most notable and courageous men I have ever known. He was a gallant and passionate fighter, especially for the less fortunate. I am grateful to have known Paul and Sheila as dear and close friends," Senate Majority Leader Thomas Daschle, D-S.D., said.
Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., said the tragedy "is too heartbreaking for words."
"For the entire United States Senate, this is a death in our family," Lott said in a statement. "The heartfelt condolences of the entire United States Senate go out to the Wellstone family and the families of all who were lost with him. The nation has lost a fearless public servant and tireless advocate for justice."
"All Minnesotans and all Americans today are saddened by this tragedy. One of the most powerful voices for justice in this country has been silenced," said Minnesota's junior Sen. Mark Dayton.
Wellstone was in a tough re-election contest that had seen him pulling slightly ahead in the last 11 days before the Nov. 5 election. His opponent, former St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, called the crash a "terrible, unimaginable tragedy" for the people of Minnesota.
"The entire Wellstone family has been selfless, public servants who embodied the best of Minnesota," he said in a written statement, adding that he immediately had suspended his campaign activities.
The National Republican Campaign Committee also immediately suspended its advertising in Minnesota, and lawmakers across the country said they would halt their activities in order to remember Wellstone.
"He was a man of enormous ability, but most of all, he was a caring person," said Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who had been in Minnesota to campaign for Wellstone, and at first had been rumored also to be aboard the plane.
Wellstone had a "passion" for people and expressed himself "brilliantly" on the floor of the Senate and in his home state, Kennedy said.
"It was impossible not to like Paul Wellstone," Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., said in a statement. "He was unintimidated and unimpressed with the trappings of power. His only interest in power was to help the powerless. He was a happy warrior in the tradition of another great Minnesota senator, Hubert Humphrey. He loved people and he loved campaigning."
Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill, said Wellstone "paid the ultimate price for his dedicated and devoted public service."
Speaking at a news conference at Wellstone’s campaign headquarters Friday, former Vice President and Minnesota Sen. Walter Mondale described the deceased lawmaker as "one of the most valiant public servants … I’ve ever known."
"As a real champion of the people, Paul infused all of us with a sense of hope and challenged our country to be an even better place," said House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt, D-Mo. "Whether you are a Republican or Democrat, liberal or conservative, everybody will miss Paul Wellstone."