Nine Presumed Dead in California Fire Helicopter Crash

Friday, Apr 2, 2010  |  Updated 5:09 PM EDT
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Nine Presumed Dead in California Fire Helicopter Crash

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WEAVERVILLE, California, August 7, 2008 (ENS) - Fire raging through dense forest on a steep hillside in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest is making it impossible for crews to recover the bodies of nine firefighters who are missing and presumed dead after the crash of a firefighting helicopter about 35 miles northwest of Redding.

The Sikorsky S-61 contract helicopter assigned to the Iron Complex of fires on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest crashed at about 7:45 pm local time Tuesday during takeoff.

A team from the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, which occurred in extremely steep terrain with limited and difficult access within the Trinity-Alps Wilderness area.

The helicopter was carrying 11 firefighters and two pilots when it went down, according to the NTSB. The helicopter had just taken the men onboard and lifted off to return them to base camp, officials said.

Jennifer Rabuck with the U.S. Forest Service said four injured people were pulled from the burning wreckage by firefighters waiting at the scene for another helicopter to pick them up.

The helicopter is registered to Carson Helicopters, a 50-year-old company with offices in Grants Pass, Oregon and Perkasie, Pennsylvania. The company said none of its aircraft have ever crashed while fighting fires.

Ten of the firefighters onboard the helicopter were employed by Grayback Forestry of Merlin, Oregon. Three of the 10 survived and are still hospitalized. Seven are missing and presumed dead. They were all Oregon residents.

"We are devastated by this," says Mike Wheelock, owner of Grayback Forestry. "We train long and hard to make sure our crews are safe on the fire line. This kind of tragedy is something you just can’t plan for."

Grayback firefighters Michael Brown, 20, and Jonathan Frohreich, 18, as well as Carson pilot Bill Coultas, 44, are being treated at the UC Davis hospital in Sacramento. Coultas was in critical condition, Brown was in fair condition and Frohreich was upgraded from critical to serious condition Thursday morning, hospital officials said.

Another Grayback employee, identified by the company as Richard Schroeder, 42, was in serious condition at Mercy Medical Center in Redding.

All Grayback firefighters from the Iron Complex fire are returning to their home base, said Wheelock. No crews remain on the fire. "We will be providing incident debriefing and other support as needed to all of our crews," he said.

A pilot and a Forest Service employee are among the missing, said Carson spokesman Bob Madden. The company identified the missing pilot as Roark Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine, Oregon.

Sparked by lightning on Saturday June 21, the blaze is fueled by grass, brush, and heavy timber with temperatures soaring into the high 90s. The fires in the Iron Complex have so far devoured over 86,366 acres and are considered to be 87 percent contained.

Some 1,340 firefighters still are battling the Iron Complex of fires, and officials estimate the containment date as September 1 at the earliest.

{Photo: A helitanker hovers over the Iron Complex, ready to drop water on the blaze. By J. Michael Johnson of the National Park Service.}

Copyright Environment News Service (ENS) 2008. All rights reserved.

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