A southern Oregon community long involved in battling wildfires was plunged into mourning with word that seven of the nine people killed in a Northern California helicopter crash were employees of a local company that has mustered contract firefighting crews since 1979.
Grief-stricken Grayback Forestry crews were standing down and returning from fighting other fires for a break, a company official said. Family members who lost loved ones were even more devastated.
"You just can't describe how it feels," said Paul Steele, who lost his 19-year-old son, David, a varsity football player who used to ride along with local firefighters to get a closer look at the career he sought. "It empties the heart."
At the Rural/Metro Fire Department station serving Merlin, division chief Austin Prince stepped outside to straighten the flag, which had been lowered to half staff in commemoration of the deaths. He said the deaths had affected firefighters in this small community known for its sport fishing and whitewater rafting both "professionally and personally."
During a memorial service Thursday evening where at the Trinity Alps base camp where firefighters have been living between shifts on the fire lines, a bagpipe player performed "Taps" and a moment of silence was observed as a helicopter circled overhead.
John Bruno, a retired captain for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said that even though more than a hundred firefighters die every year in the line of duty, "it never gets easier any time it happens."
"When a firefighter dies, everyone knows him because we are all from the same cut," Bruno said.
Firefighters at Trinity Alps were given the option of being released from duty if they felt as if the crash would make it too difficult to keep working. None accepted, said Tim Fike, the deputy incident commander and a fire chief in Nevada County.
"It affected everybody emotionally, but everybody accepted the challenge and went back to what we do everyday," Fike said.
But Grayback Forestry's founder, Mike Wheelock, said many of his employees working other fires were returning home. "They are experiencing great grief about the missing and those who are injured," Wheelock said.
Investigators reach site
Meanwhile, a team from the National Transportation Safety Board got its first look late Thursday at the crash site where the Sikorsky S-61N chopper carrying 11 weary firefighters and two crew members went down in the remote Shasta-Trinity National Forest just after takeoff Tuesday.
Their arrival was significant because a sheriff's search team could not begin recovering bodies from the wreckage until the investigators made an initial assessment, according to the U.S. Forest Service. An NTSB spokeswoman said team members were expected to relay their initial findings on Friday, including whether they had found the aircraft's voice data recorder.
Six of the Grayback firefighters who died in the crash were identified as Shawn Blazer, 30; Scott Charleson, 25; Matthew Hammer, 23; Edrik Gomez, 19; Bryan Rich, 29; and Steele. All are from southern Oregon. Grayback said it would not release the name of a seventh victim until it could notify family members.
The eighth victim was described as a Forest Service flight inspector, although the agency did not immediately identify its employee. Also killed was one of the helicopter's pilots, Roark Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine, Ore. Schwanenberg, who worked for Carson Helicopters, was listed as being in control of the aircraft when it went down.
Schwanenberg "lived and breathed" flying to fight fires, his wife, Christine Schwanenberg, said Thursday.
"He felt responsible for making a difference in this world," she said. He used humor to help turn around tough situations among fire crews, and "if they were having a tough day he was the one to step up to the plate."
Both pilots has over 25,000 hours of flight time between them, and the company had upgraded the 30-year-old chopper's engine, airframe and rotors three years ago, said Carson spokesman Bob Madden. The helicopter could carry 1,000 gallons of water for firefighting, according to Carson. The chopper was not carrying any water or flame retardant when it crashed, Madden said.
The helicopter plunged out of the sky just after takeoff, officials said, coming to rest on a steep outcropping 1,000 feet below where it left the ground. The helicopter was refueled just before the crash and burst into flames after it hit the hillside.
About 30 firefighters and other personnel in the clearing waiting for their own rides scrambled down toward the crash site in hopes of reaching survivors. Two survivors emerged in flames, and several witnesses reported that a third escaped without serious burns and went back to the wreckage to help pull out the fourth survivor, according to Kitty Higgins, a spokeswoman for the National Transportation Safety Board.
Four still hospitalized
The four survivors — three firefighters and the co-pilot — were being treated for their injuries at area hospitals.
Firefighters Michael Brown, 20, and Jonathan Frohreich, 18, both were upgraded to good condition Thursday afternoon and moved from the intensive care unit at the University of California Davis Medical Center, according to the hospital. Both were sitting up and watching television coverage of the crash, said Dr. John Anderson, a trauma surgeon who treated them.
"The injuries that they have, I'm optimistic they'll completely heal from," Anderson said.
Co-pilot Bill Coultas, 44, was in critical but stable condition after undergoing 3 1/2 hours of surgery for burns covering about one-third of his body, said Dr. Tina Palmieri, director of the UC Davis Regional Burn Center. He remained heavily sedated and on a ventilator and was likely to require months of rehabilitation, Palmieri said.
Another firefighter, Richard Schroeder, 42, was upgraded from serious to fair condition at Mercy Medical Center in Redding, the hospital said. Schroeder suffered a cracked shoulder and vertebra, said his mother, Linda Parks.
The firefighters waiting to be picked up from the forest on Tuesday night had been working at the northern end of a fire that has burned more than 27 square miles since it was ignited by lightning on June 21, part of a larger complex of blazes that is mostly contained. More than 1,000 firefighters from across the nation and around the world still are deployed there.
Andy Mills, director of helicopter operations for Carson Helicopters, which has a base at the Grants Pass Airport in Merlin not far from the headquarters of Grayback, said they were at a loss to explain the crash. Visibility was good, there was no wind, the pilots were very experienced, and reported the helicopter was flying well.
"This is a devastating blow for us," said Mills. "We are not a huge company. This has had a very severe impact on us. We know between the Grayback people on the aircraft and our company it's been a huge blow to Southern Oregon and I know it's been a huge blow to the firefighting community."