USA — Fire raging through rugged, dense terrain was complicating efforts Thursday to recover victims and evidence from the remote part of a Northern California forest where a firefighting helicopter crashed. Nine people were presumed dead, but four others were rescued.
The aircraft was carrying 11 firefighters and two pilots when it went down and was destroyed by fire Tuesday night in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board. The crash occurred just after the helicopter had picked up firefighters and lifted off from a small clearing in the forest to take them back to camp, officials said.
Four injured people three firefighters and a pilot were flown to hospitals. They were rescued from the burning wreckage by firefighters on the ground who had been waiting for another helicopter to pick them up, said Jennifer Rabuck, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.
Eight firefighters and a pilot were presumed dead. The wreckage of the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter was still smoldering Thursday morning, according to Carson Helicopters Inc., which owned and operated the chopper.
It was the deadliest wildfire-fighting incident since 1994, when 14 firefighters were killed in a wildfire near Glenwood Springs, Colo. In 2003, eight Oregon firefighters returning home after fighting a blaze in Idaho were killed when their van collided with a truck outside Vale, Ore.
Lynn Ward, a spokeswoman for Trinity County Sheriff’s Department, said Thursday that crews had not yet begun recovering bodies from the crash site because of the active fire in the area and the difficult terrain.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it had dispatched a team of investigators to survey the wreckage and to begin the long process of determining what caused the helicopter to crash.
Ten of the firefighters, including the three in the hospital, were employed by firefighting contractor Grayback Forestry, according to Kelli Matthews, a spokeswoman for the Merlin, Ore.-based company.
Grayback’s tally showed that seven of its employees on the helicopter were missing. All seven were from southern Oregon and were in their 20s and 30s, said Leslie Habetler, a Grayback spokeswoman. Their names have not been released.
A pilot and a Forest Service employee were also among the missing, Carson spokesman Bob Madden said. The company identified the missing pilot as Roark Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine, Ore.
“The probability of him not surviving is very great,” Schwanenberg’s wife, Christine Schwanenberg, said Thursday.
He “lived and breathed” flying to fight fires, she said. “He felt responsible for making a difference in this world.”
Matthews said Grayback was notifying families of the missing firefighters and fielding calls from anxious relatives asking whether their family members were among the injured or dead.
The firefighters had been working at the northern end of a fire burning on more than 27 square miles in the national forest, part of a larger complex of blazes that is mostly contained. Mike Wheelock, Grayback’s founder and owner, said the company had two 20-person crews working the fire, a mix of young seasonal firefighters and professionals.
Five Grayback firefighters were killed in July 2002 when a van ferrying its workers from Oregon to a wildfire in Colorado swerved off a highway and spun out of control.
“We are just right now concentrating on all the families and our employees,” he said while visiting the University of California, Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, where two of his employees were being treated. “We are very concerned about them because we are very tight-knit.”
Grayback firefighters Michael Brown, 20, and Jonathan Frohreich, 18, as well as Carson pilot Bill Coultas, 44, were being treated at the UC Davis hospital, according to the contractor. Coultas was in critical condition, Brown was in fair condition and Frohreich was upgraded from critical to serious condition Thursday morning, according to the hospital.
Another Grayback employee, identified as Richard Schroeder, 42, was in serious condition at Mercy Medical Center in Redding, officials said.
Leora Frohreich, Jonathan Frohreich’s grandmother, said that it was the young man’s first work as a wildland firefighter and that he planned to attend mechanic school this fall.
He had worked on a fire near Williams, Ore., for three weeks and then was on the Shasta-Trinity fire for four days, the grandmother said in a phone interview from Medford, Ore. His crew was being flown out for some rest when the helicopter crashed, she said.
“I’m so thankful because he’s just lucky to be alive,” Frohreich said, adding that the firefighter’s parents, sister and girlfriend had gone to the Sacramento area to be with him. “You can’t be in a crash like that and not hurt.”
Carson Helicopters, a Pennsylvania company whose firefighting operations are based in Grants Pass, Ore., had all 12 of its helicopters in use for firefighting in Oregon and California, Madden said. The company said the crash was the first aircraft accident while firefighting in its 50-year history.
Both pilots were Carson employees with “thousands and thousands” of hours of flight experience, and the company had upgraded the 30-year-old chopper’s engine, airframe and rotors three years ago, he said.
The helicopter could carry up to 16 passengers or 1,000 gallons of water for firefighting, according to the company. The chopper was not carrying any water or flame retardant when it crashed, Madden said.