updated 8/8/2008 8:01:44 PM ET 2008-08-09T00:01:44

Investigators recovered the cockpit voice recorder from the wreckage of a helicopter that crashed after picking up firefighters in a Northern California forest, killing nine people, officials said Friday.

The recorder is bound for the National Transportation Safety Board laboratory in Washington, D.C., where experts were working on it Saturday, board member Kitty Higgins said.

"The recorder is in better condition than we hoped given the condition of the crash site," Higgins said at a news conference in Redding, about 40 miles southeast of where the helicopter went down Tuesday night.

The Sikorsky S-61N was ferrying 10 firefighters, two pilots and a U.S. Forest Service employee when it crashed after takeoff in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. Four of those aboard were rescued and taken to hospitals.

Witnesses told investigators that the helicopter was moving more slowly than normal after liftoff and struck a tree before crashing to the ground. The aircraft came to rest on its left side about 150 yards from its takeoff site and then "quickly filled with very dense, thick black smoke," Higgins said.

Authorities were working to remove the remains of the crash victims Friday. The families of all but one of the victims have been notified; officials are trying to locate the family of the last victim, she said.

The crash victims include seven contract firefighters, one pilot and the Forest Service employee, whom the agency on Friday identified as Jim Ramage. Ramage was assigned to the agency's fire and aviation division in Redding.

Investigators plan to interview the crash survivors when they're ready and "medically available," Higgins said. They will also survey the treetop heights and topographical features of the crash site, take fuel samples, and review the aircraft's maintenance records.

They also plan to analyze the chopper's "escape windows, seat belts and other factors that would tell us something about the difficulties passengers would have had evacuating the aircraft," Higgins said.

The helicopter was made in 1964 and had more than 35,000 flight hours. Carson Helicopters Inc. had owned the aircraft for about one year, she said.

Reports indicate that visibility was clear and winds very light when the helicopter crashed.

The crew had taken its first flight at 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, performing two water drops and two crew pickups and then refueling before the accident at 7:45 p.m.

Investigators hope to complete their report on the accident in one year.

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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