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Stenehjem driving during crash, lawmaker was not wearing seat belt

BISMARCK -- Senate Majority Leader Bob Stenehjem was driving the vehicle and not wearing a seat belt in the accident that killed him Monday near Soldotna, Alaska.

The Alaska Department of Public Safety released new details Tuesday about the single-vehicle accident that killed Stenehjem and injured two passengers. Stenehjem, 59, of Bismarck, was on a family fishing trip when the accident occurred.

According to the accident report, Stenehjem was northbound in a 1999 Chevrolet Suburban when he crossed the center line and drove through the southbound lane and off the southbound shoulder into a ditch.

The vehicle continued northbound in the ditch, struck an embankment and rolled multiple times before coming to rest on its roof, the report stated.

Stenehjem's passengers were his son, Robert W. Stenehjem Jr., 34; his grandson, Daniel Stenehjem, 11, and Keith Johnson, 34, of Hinckley, Minn.

Stenehjem, Stenehjem Jr. and Johnson were not wearing seat belts and were ejected from the vehicle, the report said.

They were transported to Central Peninsula Hospital in Soldotna. Stenehjem was pronounced dead at the hospital as a result of the injuries he sustained during the collision.

Johnson was reported in critical condition and was transported to Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage, the report said.

Rob Stenehjem was listed in fair condition at the Soldotna hospital Tuesday, said hospital spokeswoman Bonnie Nichols. She said he had surgery to repair a broken right wrist and had a puncture to his chin, mouth injuries, bruises to his eyes and abrasions all over his body.

Daniel Stenehjem was wearing a seat belt and was treated and released Monday.

Alcohol does not appear to be a factor in the crash, the report stated. The incident remains under investigation.

Stenehjem's body may undergo an autopsy to discover what killed him. Alaska Health and Social Services Department spokesman Greg Wilkinson says the medical examiner will check his body, and if it's obvious he was killed by accident injuries, an autopsy may not be done.

Wilkinson said autopsy results will not be public, but they could be disclosed by Alaska state troopers or Stenehjem's family.

Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem said details of the funeral arrangements for his brother are still being worked out and will be released when plans are finalized. He said he's receiving an outpouring of emails, Facebook messages and phone calls.

"They need to know how much it really does matter," he said.

Bob Stenehjem, a Republican, was elected to the state Senate in 1992 and became majority leader in 2001. He worked as the city of Bismarck's road and streets foreman.

As a state senator, he opposed proposals to make North Dakota's seat-belt law into a primary enforcement law, and friends said he personally disliked wearing a seat belt.

On Tuesday, Bismarck-Mandan legislators draped Stenehjem's desk in the Senate chamber with red roses.

Assistant Majority Leader Randy Christmann of Hazen drove to Bismarck to spend time in the chamber. Looking across the empty room, he said he could already feel the void from Stenehjem's death.

"It's difficult to think that he's not here," Christmann said.

He didn't know if senators would coordinate a tribute to Stenehjem, saying they need to see what the family's wishes are first.

Senate Minority Leader Ryan Taylor also said Stenehjem's death will leave a great void.

"I appreciated Bob's service to the state of North Dakota and enjoyed the working relationship we had as senate leaders," Taylor said in a statement. "He was a man of his word, and he worked very hard for his caucus and the entire Legislature in his job as majority leader."

Members of the Midwestern Legislative Conference plan to pass a resolution today in honor of Stenehjem.

"Senator Stenehjem's leadership and statesmanship produced a legacy of progressive legislation that will improve the quality of life of North Dakotans for generations to come," the resolution states.

Stenehjem will also be recognized for being "a national leader in tribal relations and transportation issues."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

Finneman is a multimedia reporter for Forum Communications Co.