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Authorities identify Wesley Chapel family in plane crash

Jeffrey and Ronni Ulrich pose with their daughters Alexa, left, and Carlie. The family perished Friday when their personal airplane crashed into a high school in Arizona.

Handout copied from Myspace | Times

Jeffrey and Ronni Ulrich pose with their daughters Alexa, left, and Carlie. The family perished Friday when their personal airplane crashed into a high school in Arizona.

WESLEY CHAPEL — The Ulrichs were on a family vacation, flying through the southern states on their way to the Grand Canyon.

But on Friday afternoon, only a day into their trip, the small aircraft carrying the family — Jeffrey, 50, Ronni, 47, Alexa Rae, 15, and Carlie Kenna, 5 — crashed into an eastern Arizona high school, killing all four aboard.

Apache County sheriff's Sgt. Richard Guinn confirmed Monday that the family, who lived in the Seven Oaks community of Wesley Chapel, were victims in the horrible crash.

Jeffrey's 1976 single-engine Piper Saratoga nosedived into Round Valley High School in Eagar, about an hour's flight from the Grand Canyon, soon after departing an airstrip in Springerville, Guinn said. The plane circled the area two or three times before it suddenly crashed and exploded.

What caused the six-seater to crash, Guinn said, is still a mystery. Federal investigators transported the wreckage to a storage facility in Phoenix, where they will reconstruct the scene for clues, though an official investigation may take up to six months.

In a statement Monday, family members said Jeff was a special agent for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Jeff, they said, "was a very meticulous pilot with over 20 years flying experience."

"As a Marine and an Officer of the Law, he was highly trained to respond to stressed and intense situations," the family said in the statement. "We know from reports from Arizona that Jeff responded heroically to try and protect his family and those on the ground."

Alexa, known to friends as Lexi, was a cheerleader and runner for the cross country and track teams at Wiregrass Ranch High School.

Her friend, Kayla South, said Alexa had made her feel welcome when she was the new kid at John Long Middle School.

"She made my day. She shook the nervous out of me and made me smile," South wrote in an e-mailed statement to the St. Petersburg Times. "She helped me a lot that year. I'll never forget her. I'll miss her."

Carlie had just finished kindergarten at Seven Oaks Elementary, where Alexa sometimes volunteered.

"She was a wonderful, amazing kindergartner, just full of life, full of what kindergartners do," said school principal BJ Smith. "Just a wonderful, wonderful family. My heart is broken."

The family said funeral arrangements are pending.

Friends of the Ulrichs left bouquets, balloons and toys in the front yard of the family's home by Monday. A child's drawing of a house, labeled "To Carlie, From Sophia," sat on the front porch.

"I loved that girl," said Mariah Schwartz, a teenager who delivered a YouTube eulogy for Alexa on Monday. The girls, Schwartz said, had met at a youth group retreat at Congregation Beth Am in Carrollwood. "I'm devastated."

Others shared their grief online. Another friend uploaded a musical tribute on YouTube with photos of Alexa and her friends at school, making silly faces with friends, dressed formally for dances and in track uniforms. Neighbors posted their condolences on the Seven Oaks community website.

"This is a terrible loss," resident Andy Denbo wrote. "Jeff was an active member of our Crime Watch and brought his vast experience and knowledge to our team. The family will be deeply missed."

Flight records show the Ulrichs' plane left Ocala International Airport on Thursday before stopping at regional airports in Meridian, Miss., and Frederick, Okla.

On Friday, the plane left the Sheppard Air Force Base and municipal airport in Wichita Falls, Texas, and touched down in Springerville, Ariz., later that morning.

Dr. Bruce Parks, the chief medical examiner for the Pima County Medical Examiner's Office in Tucson, said the remains would likely be inspected Tuesday.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

Authorities identify Wesley Chapel family in plane crash 06/14/10 [Last modified: Monday, June 14, 2010 11:22pm]
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