PITTSBURGH — UNITED States Sen. John Heinz was an uncommon politician: a Republican who championed the causes of the elderly and unemployed steel workers; a wealthy man who worked because he wanted to. The Senate vacancy left by his death in a plane crash Thursday is a blow to Republican hopes of recapturing the Senate next year. Heinz was considered almost unbeatable in his state. In 1988, he became the first US senator from Pennyslvania to win by more than 1 million votes.
On Thursday the senator was flying to Philadelphia when the pilot of his twin-engine plane reported trouble with its landing gear, according to federal investigators. A helicopter that went up to check the plane's landing gear hit the right wing of Heinz's Piper Aerostar PA60, and the two aircraft crashed next to an elementary school in Merion, Penn. Heinz, the four pilots, and two children in the school playground were killed.
Pittsburghers will long remember Heinz's impact on their community and themselves. "While he was very much in the public eye as a senator, he was very much involved in the cultural community," said Martin McGuinn, vice chairman of Mellon Bank Corporation. "I am not sure people realized how much he did."
As chairman of the Howard Heinz Endowment, started by his father, Senator Heinz oversaw many projects. The endowment - one of the nation's larger private family foundations - sponsored economic development programs in the region's depressed steel towns and established a child development office at the University of Pittsburgh.
Heinz was one of the two richest men in the Senate. (John D. Rockefeller IV (D) of West Virginia is the other.)
Heinz was the only heir of an estimated $500 million estate, built on the H.J. Heinz Company his great grandfather founded in 1869. He is survived by his wife, Theresa, and three children.
A special election will be held in November to fill the Senate post Heinz held. Pennsylvania Gov. Robert Casey has the option of appointing someone in the interim, although he has declined to discuss the topic so far. Among the possible contenders for the Senate post are US Attorney General Dick Thornburgh, a Republican and former Pennsylvania governor, and the state's current lieutenant governor, Mark Singel, a Democrat.