Image: Helicopter pilot Mike Wagsataff
Lenny Ignelzi  /  AP
Helicopter pilot Mike Wagstaff, from New Zealand, is credited with saving three firefighters and one civilian in a daring rescue.
updated 10/30/2007 10:43:35 PM ET 2007-10-31T02:43:35

A week after flames engulfed Southern California, several firefighters are trying to forget the screams that pushed them to make a heroic rescue.

A shrill voice pierced Ray Chaney’s headset as he flew a small plane about a mile above the U.S.-Mexico border on Oct. 21. The air traffic controller looked helplessly at the sea of flames below.

The desperate call for help crackled on firefighter radio frequencies for miles around, signaling to fire crews that somewhere, deep in the smoke, a wall of flames had overcome four firefighters.

They had been trying to save a man and his son, who were stranded in a hilltop home.

“There was one scream and then a series of them,” Chaney said. “I really try not to think about it.”

'We're burned over!'
Chaney, a battalion chief for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and coordinator of the aerial assault on the fire, called off incoming tankers loaded with retardant. He directed water-dumping helicopters to circle in low to try to spot the victims.

The smoke was so dense the search seemed impossible, but then a firefighter’s scream came back on the line.

“’We’re burned over! We have a casualty and burns, we need help!”’ Chaney recalled hearing.

Three of the firefighters huddling together in the inferno gave him enough information to direct the helicopters. The fourth firefighter had disappeared, and the others feared he was dead.

The first to spot the victims was Michael Wagstaff, a contract pilot flying a helicopter tanker for the U.S. Forest Service.

A heroic act
What happened next, according to firefighters who witnessed it, was one of the most heroic acts in a week of many.

Wagstaff landed the plane on a smoldering patch of scorched ground long enough for the firefighters and the son to pile on board. The father had died in the flames. Chaney, flying above, put out a call for medical help.

A rendezvous point was set at what remained of a burned-out fire station.

Firefighter Matt Streck, who had heard the screams and the call for medical help, flagged down paramedics. To get them to the fire station, he had to lead them down a road flanked by walls of flames.

“Just as (Wagstaff) was arriving with the injured, I looked down and saw three or four trucks and the paramedics screeching to a stop in front of the helicopter pad,” Chaney said. “I felt pretty good.”

For those waiting to help, however, the nightmare was just beginning.

“It was probably one of the worst experiences of my life,” Streck said. “I knew a couple of these people. We had worked together, and I couldn’t recognize them.”

Mood lifted
One bright spot lifted the mood. As paramedics attended to the three firefighters, the missing one, Andrew Pikop, walked through the door with only moderate burns.

Firefighters from another company had found Pikop. He had survived by deploying an emergency shelter and hiding behind boulders.

The four firefighters, members of the department, are the only ones to have suffered life-threatening injuries while battling the blazes. More than 100 other firefighters have suffered minor injuries.

Wanda Sajtar, the nursing supervisor at the University of California, San Diego Medical Center burn unit, said two firefighters were in critical condition early Tuesday and two others were in good condition. A fifth firefighter had been treated and released.

The trapped firefighters were honored before the San Diego Chargers took the field Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium.

“They are heroes,” said Ruben Grijalva, chief of the department. “I have heard about the pilot and that it was a heroic effort. I’m sure there are going to be a lot of Medals of Valor that come out of this incident.”

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