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Arizona town mourns Wesley Chapel family killed in plane crash

A third of Round Valley High School is gone after a plane, carrying a family of four, crashed into it Friday afternoon. The school is in the town of Eagar, Ariz., 15 miles west of the New Mexico border, on the slopes of the White Mountains. This is not just a school — it's the school, teaching 500 students from Eagar, Springerville and other small towns in this rural area.

People here aren't worried about rebuilding.

They are mourning.

The family who died — Jeffrey Ulrich, 50; his wife, Ronni, 47; and daughters Alexa, 15 and Carlie, 5 — were strangers who lived nearly 2,000 miles away in Wesley Chapel. Yet the people of Eagar are grieving, leaving flowers and candles, homemade signs and teddy bears at the school gates.

More than 200 people held a vigil Monday night. Students plan to create a college scholarship in Alexa's name. The town wants to hold another vigil Friday and is talking of creating a permanent memorial.

"Not a soul is worried about the school or their classrooms or what's going to happen," said Karen Warnick, 58, who covers Eagar, Springerville and the other nearby towns for the White Mountain Independent.

Her office windows rattled when the plane crashed. She was on scene within minutes, along with hundreds of residents who ran to see what happened. So many people were on their cell phones that service, usually spotty, shut down.

No one on the ground was hurt. Normally, students would have been inside, but budget cuts eliminated summer school this year. Last week the board decided to give staff Fridays off. The day of the crash was their first.

Warnick said most people at the scene were silent, in shock and now, days later, still crying.

"We are worried about them and their family — not our school," she said.

Mike Hogan, 50, is the chief of the Eagar Police Department, which has 10 officers. Springerville has nine. Together, the towns have about 7,000 residents — many ranchers, power plant and timber workers. The school system is a main employer.

Hogan and his officers held a procession Tuesday afternoon to lay flowers at the school grounds, in honor of Ulrich — who was a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — and his family.

"Please tell the rest of the family we are sorry for their loss," Hogan said.

Authorities are still investigating the crash, and it may be months before they determine what went wrong. The crash happened shortly after the plane took off from an airstrip in Springerville. Sgt. Richard Guinn of the Apache County Sheriff's Office said it appears Jeffrey Ulrich was attempting to gain altitude when the plane hit a light post and a tree, then crashed into the two-story school.

Ulrich was a pilot with more than 20 years experience. The family was heading west on a vacation to the Grand Canyon.

Eastern Arizona residents have reached out online through a Facebook page created in memory of Alexa, who just finished her sophomore year at Wiregrass Ranch High School. Her friend Jack Whidden, an 18-year-old recent graduate of Wiregrass Ranch, has been writing back to these kind strangers who send messages of condolences.

"I'm blown away," Whidden said. "A small town who just had their high school destroyed is having a vigil for a family they've never met who lived thousands of miles away.

"Round Valley has got to be the nicest area in America."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy and the Associated Press contributed to this story. Erin Sullivan can be reached at esullivan@sptimes.com or (727) 869-6229.

Remembrance vigil

There will be a service for the Ulrich family at 8 p.m. Friday at the football field at Wiregrass Ranch High School, 2909 Mansfield Blvd., Wesley Chapel. The school is asking people to bring flashlights instead of candles. Family members, teachers, students and other community members will speak at the service.

Arizona town mourns Wesley Chapel family killed in plane crash 06/15/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 16, 2010 1:16am]
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