Friday, August 8, 2008

Possibly the worst non-military helicopter crash in U.S. history

UPDATE @ 1:49 p.m., August 8

The U.S. Forest Service has identified the USFS employee who died in the crash. It is 64-year old Jim Ramage, a resident of Redding, California, who has been a helicopter pilot for over 20 years. He was serving as a "check pilot" on the helicopter when it crashed. A check pilot rides along on a aircraft to affirm the skills and capabilities of the pilot. This can be done on a regular recurring basis, or to certify that the pilot has the necessary ability to perform specific tasks, such as water bucket drops, repelling, aerial ignition, or external loads. Ramage worked for CalFire as a helicopter pilot before transferring to the USFS. He was planning on retiring soon and had planned a trip to China with his family.

That leaves one person who died in the crash that has still not been named, a firefighter for Grayback Forestry.

9:23 a.m., August 8

The names of most of the victims of the helicopter crash on the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in northern California have been released.


William Coultas, 44, Cave Junction, Ore. Pilot for Carson Helicopters of Grants Pass, Ore. Critical condition at UC Davis Medical Center with burns over a third of his body.

Michael Brown, 20, Medford, Ore. Firefighter with Grayback Forestry of Merlin, Ore. Good condition at UC Davis with facial burns and fractures.

Jonathan Frohreich, 18, Medford, Ore. Grayback firefighter. Good condition at UC Davis.

Rich Schroeder, 42, Medford, Ore. Grayback firefighter. Fair condition at Mercy Hospital in Redding.


Shawn Blazer, 30, Medford, Ore.

Scott Charleson, 25, Phoenix, Ore.

Matthew Hammer, 23, Grants Pass, Ore.

Edrik Gomez, 19, Ashland, Ore.

Bryan Rich, 29, Medford, Ore.

David Steele, 19, Ashland, Ore.

Roark Schwanenberg, 54, Carson pilot, Lostine, Ore.

* The first six were Grayback firefighters. The names of one Grayback employee and a U.S. Forest Service employee who were killed have not been released pending notification of their families.

Rich Schroedersuffered a cracked scapula, fractured vertebra, and cuts and bruises. He called his mother who told the San Francisco Chronicle what he remembered of the crash.

The helicopter had just returned from ferrying 13 other firefighters back to the base camp, he said. Schroeder clicked his seat belt, and the helicopter started rising from a clearing.

Somewhere between 200 and 300 feet off the ground, he heard what no air passenger ever wants to hear - the pilot yelling in panic.

Schroeder looked out the window in the split second of freefall and thought he saw the craft crashing through branches. In a second, he was on the ground, trapped under burning metal and a body.

He was injured but was able to push away the body - which was on fire - and wriggle out of his seat belt. The only way out was through a broken window. He smashed the window to make more room and crawled out to escape the flames. Three others made it out.

"Whoever landed on top of him, that's what saved his life," Parks said.

"He didn't hear any sound before it happened - he said the whole thing was over in a flash of an eye," Parks said.

Gary Robb, an attorney who represents victims of helicopter crashes, said helicopters account for 10 to 12 percent of all aircraft flights in the United States, yet are responsible for almost 50 percent of all crashes, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.. He said this is possibly the worst non-military helicopter crash in U.S. history

The recovery of the bodies and the investigation of the crash are being delayed by the wildland fire on three sides of the crash site. In addition, the fire caused by the helicopter going down with a full load of fuel burned through Thursday morning.

The LA Times has more information about the crash.
"Two survivors escaped the aircraft, and when they were able to get out of the aircraft, they were on fire," said Kitty Higgins, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board. "The third escaped under his own power and did go back in to rescue and pull out the fourth survivor."

Higgins said that about 30 firefighters and support personnel watched as the helicopter with 13 occupants and a full tank of fuel took off from a remote "helispot" at about 6,000 feet elevation at 7:45 p.m. Tuesday, traveled about 150 yards and crashed, bursting into flames.

The bodies and wreckage of the Sikorsky S-61, operated by Carson Helicopters, remain at the site.

At an afternoon news conference here, about 35 miles from the crash site, Trinity County Undersheriff Eric Palmer described a confused and difficult aftermath that stretched for hours.

About a half hour after the crash, the U.S. Forest Service called the Sheriff's Department to report the accident, initially saying that 16 people were on board and none had died. "This information later turned out to be inaccurate," Palmer said.

About six hours later, the fire service command team for the Iron Complex fire called, he said, and reported that nine people were unaccounted for. Sheriff's personnel did not get to the site until 10 a.m. on Wednesday.

A federal investigation into the cause of the crash began Thursday, with members of the safety board, Forest Service and Federal Aviation Administration meeting in the morning, along with representatives from Carson Helicopters, Sikorsky Helicopters and General Electric, which manufactured the aircraft's engine.

Higgins said that investigators would look for the helicopter's voice data recorder, but she said she could not guarantee its usefulness because of the extensive fire damage.

One of the survivors, Michael Brown, 20, of Medford, Ore., said in a telephone interview Thursday from his hospital bed in Sacramento that his crew was pulling out of the area at the time of the crash because a lightning storm was fast approaching.

"All I can remember is lining up with my bag in one hand and my chain saw in the other," Brown said, noting that he climbed into the helicopter and took a seat behind the pilot. He believes his spot on the aircraft may have saved his life because the pilot also survived.

"I had flashes of rotors hitting trees and we started to go down," Brown said, but added that he was not certain if the accident actually happened that way or if he imagined it, because his memory is unclear.

Another survivor, Richard Schroeder, 42, also of Medford, said in a phone interview Wednesday night from his hospital room in Redding that it seemed that the helicopter's rotor hit a tree as it was taking off. He also said he may have been saved by sitting up front.
Two northern California television stations have online videos about the crash. KRCR has several, including views of the crash site, and KHSL also has reports.

Here is a 1.5 minute video from AP about the crash.

Grayback Forestry has set up a web site with updated information about the tragedy. By clicking on "Comments" and scrolling to the bottom of the page, you can leave condolence messages. There is also an online "guestbook" operated by the Redding Searchlight newspaper where a person can leave written comments, audio comments, or post photographs.

Photo courtesy of LA Times and Grayback Forestry

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