Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Update on helicopter crash; 9 presumed dead and 4 injured

Further information released by the U.S. Forest Service and the FAA reveals that in addition to the 4 injured reported earlier, 9 additional firefighters that were on the helicopter are missing and presumed dead. This is a very sad day and our thoughts are with the families and coworkers of those involved.

From the San Francisco Chronicle:

(08-06) 16:23 PDT REDDING - -- In what might be one of the deadliest firefighting incidents in U.S. history, nine firefighters are presumed dead and four were seriously injured after their helicopter went down Tuesday night after battling a blaze in remote Trinity County, northwest of Redding, authorities said today.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration both dispatched teams to the crash site in a remote, wooded area near Junction City, about 215 miles northwest of Sacramento.

The U.S. Forest Service said that one individual was confirmed dead and eight are unaccounted for. It was unclear whether those unaccounted for had simply not yet been identified. The Federal Aviation Administration indicated there were 13 people on board the aircraft and told a fire service that there were nine fatalities.

Cynthia Sage, with the U.S. Forest Service, said the accident happened about 7:45 p.m. as the helicopter was ferrying firefighters back to a staging area after they had been working on the Trinity fire.

She said medical evacuation personnel responded to the scene, but they could not get the people with injuries out until around 9:30 p.m. because the crash was in a very remote location.

"We would like to ask the public to keep their thoughts and prayers for the fire personnel involved and the families," Sage said.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said the Sikorsky S-61 chopper was destroyed by fire after crashing "under unknown circumstances" in a remote mountain location. The nine were presumably killed in the fire that destroyed the helicopter, Gregor said.

The aircraft had a crew of two, both employees of Carson Helicopters of Grants Pass, Ore., and was carrying 11 firefighters. The pilot is among the injured and the co-pilot is listed as missing and presumed dead.

The four injured firefighters were transported to Mercy Medical Center in Redding, Air National Guard spokeswoman Capt. Alyson M. Teeter said.

Mercy Medical Center spokesman Michael Burke said three of the firefighters have been transferred to UC-Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, two in critical condition and one in serious condition. One of the firefighters remains at Mercy in serious condition, Burke said.

The Buckhorn Fire the crew had been fighting is 25 percent contained, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It's burned 17,755 acres. It's one of several fires in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest caused by lightning strikes. All told fires that have been raging since June 21 have consumed more than 86,000 acres of grass, brush and trees.

The firefighters worked for a private contracting company, Greyback Forestry, headquartered in Merlin, Ore. No one from Greyback was available for comment. Greyback lost four firefighters in 2002 when the van they were in overturned on its way to fight a fire in Colorado.

Tuesday's crash was the worst involving firefighting aircraft in history, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. In 1972, seven firefighters perished in a crash in the Los Padres National Forest.

"I've flown a lot of helicopters and they've all been really safe," said Ken Palmrose, spokesman for the fire center. "Fatalities involving aircraft are rare."

The deadliest firefighting incident was the attack on the World Trade Centers on Sept. 11, when 340 firefighters lost their lives. According to the National Fire Protection Association, other deadly accidents include a 1994 incident in which 14 firefighters died while battling a wildfire in Glenwood Springs, Colo. In 1984, 10 firefighters were killed in an oil refinery fire in Romeoville, Ill.

Between 1990 and 2006, California had the highest number of wildland firefighter deaths in the nation - 64, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. Colorado was second at 25, followed by Texas with 19. Prior to Wednesday's crash, the next deadliest incident in California was the October 2006 Esperanza Fire that killed five federal firefighters.

Bob Madden, spokesman for the Carson Helicopters, the company that owns the downed aircraft, said the pilot and co-pilot work for Carson Helicopters, he said, and they were transporting 11 firefighters at the time of the crash.

Madden said preliminary indications suggested that neither weather nor visibility should have played a role in the crash.

He said the company has 12 helicopters working in firefighting capacities around the country. The company uses a military-style Sikorsky S61 heavy helicopter, which is outfitted to carry water or fire-retardant chemicals to drop on a fire, and also to act as transportation for people and supplies. But the aircraft can only perform one of those missions at a time, Madden said. The helicopter can carry up to 15 passengers.

A Sikorsky S-61A owned and operated by Carson Helicopters crashed and burst into flames during a logging operation in Tennessee in March 2003, killing the 56-year-old pilot and seriously injuring the co-pilot, NTSB records show. Investigators blamed the crash on the malfunction of a component that was overdue for repair, and on the pilot flying too low to avert the crisis.

Madden said this was the first time one of the company's helicopters have crashed while working a wildland fire.
Additional information from MSNBC:
Firefighters who were waiting to be picked up helped rescue the injured after the helicopter crashed around 7:45 p.m. and caught fire, Rabuck said. About three dozen firefighters had to spend the night on the mountain because it became too dark for other helicopters to land, she said.
One report said the crash happened about 100 feet from a helispot.

From the Redding Searchlight:
The three contract firefighters injured in Tuesday night’s helicopter crash in Trinity County have been identified by their company.

Eight firefighters and one helicopter crew member are missing and believed dead, the Federal Aviation Administration reported.

The injured, all Grayback Forestry Inc. employees, are Jonathan Frohreich, 18; Rick Schoeder, 42; and Michael Brown, 20, company spokeswoman Leslie Habetier said this afternoon. They are believed to be from Medford, Ore. Grayback is located in Merlin, Ore.

Frohreich is in critical condition at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, Brown is in serious condition at Davis, and Schoeder is in serious condition at Mercy Medical Center in Redding.

The helicopter pilot who was injured and taken to UC Davis has not been identified.
KGO-TV in San Francisco reports that the pilot's name is William Coultas, information that previously was not available. He is in critical condition in the burn unit at the U.C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.
Three of the four firefighters that survived a helicopter crash in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, were taken to the U.C. Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

One firefighter's condition has been upgraded from serious to fare condition. Three of the four survivors are at the U.C. Davis Medical Center.

William Coultas, the pilot of the helicopter, is in critical condition in the burn unit. Jonathan Frohreich, a contract firefighter is also in critical condition. Michael Brown is also a contract firefighter, was in critical condition, but has now been upgraded to fair condition.

HERE is a link to a video report about the incident by NBC news.

HERE is a link to news releases by the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. If you click on the "Audio Link" at the site it will download and play an .mp3 recording of the Forest Supervisor's news conference about the incident.

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