Thursday, August 7

9 firefighters missing, feared dead in fire helicopter crash - Los Angeles Times

9 missing, feared dead in fire helicopter crash - Los Angeles Times
A helicopter carrying a firefighting crew back to base for the night crashed in the remote reaches of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest on Tuesday evening, and nine of those on board are missing and feared dead, authorities said today.

The four others on board were critically burned, according to Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. Authorities have not yet identified all of the passengers.

The Sikorksy helicopter crashed about 7:45 p.m. Tuesday while taking off from a remote site about 35 miles northwest of Redding, in Northern California, officials said.

The chopper was shuttling a hand-crew back to its base in Junction City for the night, said Jennifer Rabuk, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service. She said the crash site -- Helispot 44 -- was a "rough opening cut by chain saws" in steep rugged terrain with a tree canopy and underbrush.

The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board are sending investigators to the scene to determine why the helicopter failed to lift off.

Ten of the victims are affiliated with Merlin, Ore.-based Grayback Forestry, one of the largest and longest-established private firefighting contractors.

"There was an incident that happened, and some of ours were involved," said Audra Moyer, a company spokeswoman.

The company identified three of the survivors, all from Medford, Ore.: Michael Brown, 20; Jonathan Frohreich, 18; and Rick Schroeder, 42. Grayback was still notifying the relatives of the missing individuals and planned to release their names shortly.

The crew was among 1,200 firefighters, assisted by nine helicopters, who were battling the Iron and Alps complex fires in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest that have burned 86,000 acres. Another firefighter assigned to the fires died late last month when he was hit by a falling tree.

The lightning fire started June 21 and is 87% contained.

The pilot and two others were taken to UC Davis Regional Burn Center in Sacramento, where two of them were listed in critical condition and the third was listed in serious condition in the Intensive Care Unit, according to Carole Gan, a hospital spokeswoman.

"All of them have burns," Gan said, declining to provide additional information on their injuries or identities.

A fourth injured person was taken to Mercy Medical Center in Redding and is in serious condition, a hospital spokesperson said.

Deborah Miley, executive director of the National Wildfire Suppression Assn., an Oregon-based group that represents private firefighting companies, said the tight-knit community of contract firefighters was staggered by Wednesday's crash. The possible fatalities appear to be the worst loss among private firefighting contractors in five years.

"In the private sector community, our biggest hazard is transportation," Miley said.

James Hall, former chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said he co-chaired a safety review committee in 2002 commissioned by the forest service to examine issues of aviation safety and performance during forest fires.

The 60-page report concluded, among other things, that the safety record of aerial firefighting was "unacceptable."

"Generally speaking, the fatality rate is one of the highest in aviation, period," Hall said. "It's something that is extremely dangerous to work in."

The Sikorsky S-61 was owned by Carson Helicopters of Grants Pass, Ore., which describes itself as one of the largest firefighting helicopter contractors with the U.S. Forest Service and Department of the Interior. According to a Times review of forest service records, Carson is one of several aviation companies regularly used by the agency to fight wildfires in California. From 2000 to 2007, the company was paid more than $10 million by the forest service for its work in the state.

Bob Madden, Carson's director of corporate affairs, said the S-61 aircraft was inspected twice a day as part of its agreement with the forest service and was in good shape.

Madden said the company had two pilots aboard the helicopter. One was transported to the burn center at UC Davis and the other is unaccounted for. He said authorities believe seven of the firefighters aboard worked for Grayback and the rest "could have been from the U.S. Forest Service."

The aircraft and crew were assigned to the Iron Complex fire, Madden said. The helicopter is capable of dropping water and fire retardant, but the tanks were empty at the time of the crash.