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Investigators probe deadly NorCal chopper crash
California wildfire 4768496
A crash investigator, center, prepares to leave the airport in Weaverville, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 7, 2008, to investigate the site of a helicopter crash that killed 9 people and injured four. - photo by P Photo/Redding record Searchlight, Jakob Schiller
    JUNCTION CITY, Calif. — After a long day battling one of Northern California’s most stubborn wildfires, dozens of weary firefighters gathered in a remote wilderness clearing near the fire’s front lines to get a chopper ride back to camp.
    Two veteran pilots flying a Sikorsky S-61N, a workhorse helicopter that can carry 16 passengers, had ferried out two groups and returned for another. The third group loaded up and lifted off, but then encountered a problem.
    ‘‘They went forward a slight bit. Then the aircraft rapidly descended and hit the hillside,’’ said Andy Mills, chief of helicopter operations for Carson Helicopters Inc., which owned and operated the chopper. ‘‘Right now we don’t know why that happened.’’
    Two days after the helicopter crashed after taking off in the remote Shasta-Trinity National Forest, authorities on Thursday confirmed what they had feared since the accident — that seven firefighters, a U.S. Forest Service employee, and a pilot were killed either in the wreck itself or the fire that consumed the helicopter after it hit the ground.
    The news left relatives, friends and co-workers of the nine victims and the four men who survived the crash waiting for clues that would help explain what went wrong. A sheriff’s search term had not begun recovering bodies from the charred remnants of the helicopter because federal investigators needed first to assess the scene, authorities said.
    Six of the 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 David Steele, 19. All were from southern Oregon and all worked for Grayback Forestry, a firefighting contractor. Grayback said it would not release the name of a seventh victim until it could notify family members.
    David Steele’s father, Paul Steele, said his son had wanted to fight fires for years and was saving money to attend Central Oregon Community College to become a firefighter and emergency medical technician.
    ‘‘You just can’t describe how it feels,’’ Paul Steele said. ‘‘It empties the heart.’’ He said his family would remember the teenager as a hero. ‘‘He died doing what he wanted to do, and protecting others,’’ the father said.
    The eighth firefighter was described as a U.S. 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.’’
    According to Carson officials, who described the crash as the company’s first firefighting accident in its 50-year history, there were no obvious warnings of danger Tuesday night.
    ‘‘We’ve talked to pilots of our other two aircraft flying in the area,’’ Mills said. ‘‘So far it sounds to me like visibility was not an issue. It was not windy up on that ridge top.’’
    One pilot told a mechanic shortly before the fatal flight that the aircraft ‘‘was flying very well,’’ Mills said.
    Both pilots had more than 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, Carson spokesman Bob Madden said.
    The helicopter, which could carry 1,000 gallons of water, wasn’t carrying water or flame retardant when it plunged out of the sky just after takeoff, Madden said.
    It came 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 rescuing anyone who survived. Two 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.
    The team of NTSB investigators that on Thursday afternoon reached the site where the helicopter’s twisted remains smoldered from more than a day hoped to recover a voice-data recorder from the downed aircraft, Higgins said at a news briefing in nearby Weaverville.
    ‘‘We will work to recover that recorder, but we can’t guarantee its condition because of the extensive fire damage, and that may unfortunately limit its usefulness,’’ she said.
    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.
    Co-pilot Bill Coultas, 44, was in critical but stable condition after surgery for burns to 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.
    Firefighter Richard Schroeder, 42, was upgraded from serious to fair condition at Mercy Medical Center in Redding, the hospital said.
    Schroeder’s mother, Linda Parks, 60, said her son told her he was able to wriggle out of his seat harness and escape the wreckage through a broken window.
    ‘‘He was in a row just behind the pilot,’’ Parks said. ‘‘There were bodies thrown on him, and I think that protected him.’’
    Schroeder suffered a cracked shoulder and vertebra along with scratches, bruises and stitches in his lip, ‘‘which got busted up pretty good,’’ she said.
    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.
    On Thursday evening, several hundred attended a brief memorial service for their fallen colleagues at the Trinity Alps base camp where they have been living in between shifts on the fire lines. During the service, 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.
    The remaining firefighters 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 the offer, 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.
    A similar helicopter operated by Carson crashed during a March 2003 logging operation near Kimble, Tenn., killing the pilot and seriously injuring the co-pilot, according to NTSB records. The agency blamed the crash on mechanical malfunction.
    With the exception of the 2001 World Trade Center attack, which killed 340 firefighters, Tuesday’s helicopter crash would rank as one of the deadliest incidents in the U.S. for firefighters in the past 30 years.
    Before the helicopter crash, three firefighters had been killed while on duty in California this year.
    Terence Chea reported from Junction City and Marcus Wohlsen reported from San Francisco. Associated Press writers Don Thompson in Sacramento; Jeff Barnard in Grants Pass, Ore.; Tim Fought in Portland, Ore.; and Jason Dearen in San Francisco also contributed to this report.

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