Thursday, August 7, 2008

Trinity Fire-Fighting Helicopter Crash


UPDATE, 8/8/08 NOON + SF Gate
 Helicopter story

LA Times, helicopter crash story

SF Gate

Story from SF Gate:
(08-06) 16:23 PDT REDDING - -- Nine firefighters were presumed dead and four were seriously injured when their helicopter went down Tuesday night after they battled a blaze in remote Trinity County.

If the deaths are confirmed, the crash would be one of the deadliest U.S. firefighting incidents.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration dispatched teams to the crash site in a remote, forested area northwest of the small town of Junction City, roughly 70 miles west of Redding.

The U.S. Forest Service said one individual was confirmed dead, and eight were unaccounted for. The Federal Aviation Administration indicated there were 13 people on board the aircraft and told the Forest Service there were nine fatalities.

Cynthia Sage of the Forest Service said the accident occurred at about 7:45 p.m. as the helicopter ferried firefighters back to a staging area after they had worked on a fire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

She said medical evacuation personnel came to the scene but could not get the injured people out until about 9:30 p.m. because the crash was in a remote location.

"We would like to ask the public to keep their thoughts and prayers for the fire personnel involved and the families," Sage said.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said the Sikorsky S-61 chopper was destroyed by fire after crashing "under unknown circumstances" in a remote mountain location. The nine dead were presumably killed in the fire that destroyed the helicopter, Gregor said.

The aircraft had a crew of two, both employees of Carson Helicopters of Grants Pass, Ore., and was carrying 11 firefighters. The pilot is among those injured, and the co-pilot is listed as missing and presumed dead.

The four injured men first were transported to Mercy Medical Center in Redding. Medical center spokesman Michael Burke said three of them later were transferred to UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

Ten of the firefighters on the helicopter worked for a private contracting company, Grayback Forestry of Merlin, Ore., said Leslie Habetler, who works for the company. It was unclear who the 11th passenger was.

4 firefighters injured
Habetler said Grayback employees Michael Brown, 20, and Jonathan Frohreich, 18, both of Medford, Ore., were at UC Davis, and nursing officials said a third crash victim, William Coultas, also was being treated at the medical center. Habetler said employee Rick Schroeder, 42, also of Medford, remained at Mercy.

Brown was upgraded to fair condition Wednesday night; while both Frohreich and Coultas remained in critical condition.

Forest Service workers joined the victims' families at the hospital Tuesday night.

"We're here so the families wouldn't have to go through this alone," said Frank Mosbacher of the Forest Service. "A tragedy like this ripples through the fire-fighting community."

Habetler said company officials, including Grayback President Mike Wheelock, were notifying relatives of those missing and asking them for items that would help authorities determine identities.

"This is a very difficult time for everyone," she said.

Grayback lost four firefighters in 2002 when the van they were in overturned on its way to a fire in Colorado.

The crew in Tuesday's crash had been fighting a fire that is part of a complex of fires in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest caused by lightning strikes. Those fires, which have been burning since June 21, have consumed more than 86,000 acres of grass, brush and trees.

To battle wildfires, firefighting agencies around the country are increasingly using private contractors. The Forest Service spent $127 million on contractors to fight California wildfires in fiscal 2007, said spokesman John Heil. Private companies provide everything from aircraft to water trucks to catering and portable hand-washing stations at base camps.

Deborah Miley, the executive director of a private firefighting industry group called the National Wildfire Suppression Association, estimated that 40 percent of the personnel and equipment used to put out wildfires across the country comes from private contractors.

Tuesday's crash was the worst involving firefighting aircraft, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. In 1972, seven firefighters perished in a crash in the Los Padres National Forest.

"I've flown a lot of helicopters and they've all been really safe," said Ken Palmrose, spokesman for the fire center. "Fatalities involving aircraft are rare."

Between 1990 and 2006, California had the highest number of wildland firefighter deaths in the nation - 64, according to the Boise fire center. Colorado was second at 25, followed by Texas with 19. Prior to Tuesday's crash, the deadliest incident in California was the October 2006 Esperanza Fire that killed five federal firefighters.

Weather not a factor
Bob Madden, spokesman for Carson Helicopters, said preliminary indications suggested that neither weather nor visibility should have played a role in the crash.

Madden said the company's 12 helicopters are working in firefighting capacities in Oregon and California. The company uses a military-style Sikorsky S-61 heavy helicopter, which is outfitted to carry water or fire-retardant chemicals to drop on a fire and also to act as transportation for people and supplies. But the aircraft can perform only one of those missions at a time, Madden said. The helicopter can carry up to 15 passengers.

A Sikorsky S-61A owned and operated by Carson Helicopters crashed and burst into flames during a logging operation in Tennessee in March 2003, killing the 56-year-old pilot and seriously injuring the co-pilot, NTSB records show. Investigators blamed the crash on the malfunction of a component that was overdue for repair and on the pilot flying too low.

Madden said Tuesday's accident was the first time one of the company's helicopters has crashed while working a wildland fire.

Jeff Gilbert, a director of the Northern California division of the California State Firefighters Association, has been fighting fires in Tehama, Shasta and Butte counties for 21 days out of the last 35. He said the intensity of this year's fires came so early and have been so erratic, that crews are at more risk than ever.

"It's devastating," Gilbert said. "It doesn't matter if they're private guys or professional contractors. Everyone's out there trying to do the same job.

"We shouldn't be out there doing this until late August or September. With the lightning storm we just had roll through out here last night, there are probably going to be a lot more."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger opened a Sacramento news conference on the budget Wednesday with a few words on what he called "a terrible tragedy."

"This is a tragic day for firefighters everywhere," the governor said. "The people of California are profoundly aware of the tremendous sacrifices these heroes and their families make day in and day out to keep us safe."


Kym said...

When I read about this on Bob Flame's site, I remembered how sad we all were when a firefighter was hurt on the Canoe fire. This so much worse. It is a terrible tragedy.

Greg said...


Carol said...

Deepest condolences to the families.

Cristina said...

The day this happened, it made not only national news (CNN), but also international (BBC). Firefighters dying in the line of duty is something that really strikes at the emotional core.

I echo Carol - my deepest condolences to the families.