Chris Birch, a longtime Anchorage Assembly member who shifted to the Legislature in 2016, died suddenly Wednesday at the age of 68.
He was driven to the Anchorage Fire Department station on O’Malley Road around 7 p.m. and taken to the Providence Alaska Medical Center from there.
“It was immediately determined he did not have a heart attack and as they were administering tests to determine the cause of the pain, he went into cardiac arrest and passed away from an an aortic dissection, a torn or ruptured aorta,” said the statement, which was written by Birch’s son Logan, his wife, Pam, and daughter Tali.
The family is devastated, they wrote.
“The same optimistic, level-headed, steadfast, honest, gregarious, and positive public persona that so many of you knew, was the exact same husband, father, grandfather, brother, uncle, and friend that he was to all of us. He was the ultimate cheerleader and it is difficult to imagine this world without him.”
Birch, a Republican, was in his first term as a state senator and served as chair of the Senate Resources Committee. He was an avid hiker described as very fit by friends, who said that made his death all the more shocking.
His death was confirmed Thursday morning by the Alaska Senate majority.
Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, offered condolences to the Birch family.
“This is a devastating loss to our state,” Giessel said in a statement issued Thursday morning. "Chris was a good, principled man of character, one who treated everyone with dignity and respect. You could always count on him to stand up for what’s right, regardless of the political consequences. His absence in the Capitol will be keenly felt by all who had the privilege to know him.”
Anchorage Republican Sen. Natasha von Imhof in a statement described Birch as her colleague, hiking partner and “dear friend,” saying “I will miss him deeply.”
His passing “came as a shock to us all,” von Imhof said. “He was extremely fit, in both mind and body. Chris never met a hiking trail he didn’t like and could often be found on top of a mountain range, rain or shine. He carried that same mindset to the Senate floor and didn’t shy away from the tough topics. Instead, he worked hard for Alaska’s best future, while always maintaining a positive outlook.”
Other legislators expressed their condolences and surprise.
Sen. Shelley Hughes, a Palmer Republican, said she got a text from Giessel at about 10:15 p.m. Wednesday that Birch died of a heart attack.
“He was actually more health conscious than most,” Hughes said in a message. “He and his wife Pam loved to hike. Makes the news all the more shocking.”
Birch spent nine years on the Anchorage Assembly representing South Anchorage. A retired engineer, he worked for mining companies as well as serving as senior engineer for Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport.
He won a seat in the House in 2016 and the Senate in 2018, representing residents of the Huffman, O’Malley, Abbott Loop, Independence Park and East Dowling neighborhoods.
Rep. Laddie Shaw, who replaced Birch in the House, said by phone that he was “an honorable man. Decent. Caring. A man who truly loved his community, his state, his friends.”
“Every time we’ve crossed paths, he would reach out to me, and say ‘My Representative,’ and shake my hand. And I was always glad I was fit, because he had such a strong grip,” Shaw said.
He added that while Birch might have supported his opponent in last year’s Republican primary, the moment Shaw won, Birch “was just shining on and giving me his full support.”
“He could talk to you with differences on one day and absolutely respect you as a friend on the same day,” Shaw said.
Rep. Josh Revak, who represents the other House district in Birch’s Senate district, said by text message, “Chris filled every room with energy and enthusiasm. He was unwavering in his dedication and love for Alaska.”
By phone, Revak said he is “heartbroken for Pam and the family.”
“When everybody talks about Senator Birch … it’s easy to overlook the family, who’s really grieving and suffering during this difficult time,” he said.
Birch’s family came to Alaska in 1944, when his father was stationed in Adak with the U.S. Marine Corps, according to a bio on the Alaska Senate Majority website. His father returned to work as a mining engineer and his mother as a geologist.
Birch was born in Illinois but grew up in mining camps near Fairbanks and the Brooks Range and earned a bachelor’s degree in mining engineering and a Master of Science in engineering management from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
He is survived by his wife, Pam, two adult children and four grandchildren.
Birch is the first Alaska lawmaker to die in office since Anchorage Democrat Max Gruenberg in 2016 and the 11th overall. He is the first senator to die in office since Bettye Fahrenkamp in 1991, according to a list compiled by the Legislative Research Service.
By law and custom, Anchorage Republicans will submit the names of three possible replacements to the governor, who will make the final choice. The remaining 12 Senate Republicans can accept or reject Dunleavy’s selection.
Because Birch was elected to the Senate in 2018, his replacement will serve only until next year’s general election, according to state law. At that time, voters will select a permanent replacement.