Kansas City
Over $1 Billion in Verdicts and Recoveries
Nine Believed Dead in California Helicopter Crash
Stephen Magagnini, Chris Bowman, Kim Minugh and Niesha Lofing -
The Sacramento Bee

TRINITY COUNTY – Teams of federal investigators will comb rugged terrain in Northern California's Trinity Alps Wilderness today, searching for clues to what caused the nation's worst-ever helicopter crash involving firefighters.

Nine people are presumed to have died and four others were badly injured Tuesday night when a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter battling the Buckhorn fire crashed on takeoff and burst into flames, authorities said.

The nine presumed fatalities include seven contract firefighters, one of two pilots and a U.S. Forest Service official, said a spokesman for Carson Helicopters Inc. of Grants Pass, Ore., which owns the chopper.

The helicopter crashed near the north edge of the large wildland fire. The craft was taking 10 firefighters and the Forest Service official out of the fire zone, said Bob Madden, Carson's director of corporate affairs.

"It was moving firefighters from the fire front to a landing site where they were going to be relieved of duty for the night," Madden said.

Both pilots had at least 10,000 hours of experience, he said.

On Tuesday, the helicopter had shuttled crews in and out of the fire zone and landed several times at Helicopter Spot 44, where the crash occurred, said Forest Service spokesman Tom Karroll.

"It's at 1,800 feet (elevation) in very steep country, the Salmon Trinity Alps primitive area," he said. "As it loaded up and the people had put on their seat belts, it didn't have a successful liftoff."

The helicopter caught fire after hitting the ground, Madden said. "Two other company choppers responded to the mayday (emergency call) and dropped water on the ground around the burning aircraft."

The chopper was bringing a contract fire crew from Grayback Forestry Inc. of Merlin, Ore., back to base camp in Junction City, 15 miles southeast, after a tough day battling the blaze. The Buckhorn fire has burned 18,551 acres and is 25 percent contained.

Grayback primarily works on wildfires in the Pacific Northwest. "They are one of our best contractors as far as job performance and safety," said Rod Nichols of the Oregon Board of Forestry.

The crew, which normally worked 14-day shifts, "was on the job all day building a fire line using shovels and chain saws," Karroll said.

Several dozen firefighters waiting their turn to be picked up "jumped in and helped get the survivors out of the wreckage, got the medical folks rolling, did triage on the four victims, evaluated the situations and made some good decisions to help the victims get the treatment they needed," said Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Rabuck.

The chopper's fuel tanks were at least half full. The resulting fireball was so hot that the crash site still smoldered on Wednesday, Rabuck said.

Three of the survivors were taken to the UC Davis Medical Center burn unit. Pilot Bill Coultas, 44, of Cave Junction, Ore., and firefighter Jonathan Forheich, 18, were reported in critical condition Wednesday night. Firefighter Michael Brown, 20, was listed in fair condition.

The fourth survivor, listed as firefighter Rick Schoeder, 42, on Grayback Forestry's Web site, was reported in serious but stable condition at Mercy Medical Center in Redding.

The 30-year-old Sikorsky S-61N chopper was made in Connecticut and upgraded three years ago, Madden said. It is not military surplus and has been used in firefighting for 10 years. "We have 12 aircraft under contract to the Forest Service," Madden said. "We're probably the largest operator of firefighting helicopters – we fight fires here, Canada, Mexico and Australia."

The NTSB has dispatched a team to investigate the crash. Investigators from the FAA and Forest Service also are expected at the crash site today.

"This kind of incident is really sad, but it's also something that will be used to really examine how we can avoid this in the future," Karroll said. "We have no idea what caused it."

Gary Robb, a Kansas City aviation lawyer who has investigated helicopter crashes across the country, said the NTSB "will look at three things: the man, the machine and the environment."

"They'll look at the pilot's flight training, experience and did he have adequate rest and was he under any particular stress," Robb said.

The NTSB will carefully review maintenance records "and do a stem-to-stern evaluation of of helicopter components and the engine to see if there's any malfunction," Robb said.

Investigators will study wind patterns, weather and thermal conditions on the ground that can cause wind to suddenly shift.

"Sudden unexpected shifts in wind is a helicopter pilot's worst nightmare," Robb said.

The Sikorsky chopper and Carson Helicopters Inc. have good reputations, he added.

The Trinity Alps accident is believed to be the ninth involving nonmilitary use of American-registered Sikorsky S-61s, according to the NTSB's database tracking aircraft accidents resulting in deaths and severe injuries since 1961. There doesn't appear to be a pattern, records indicate.

Before Tuesday's crash, three firefighters had been killed while on duty in California this year, including one also assigned to battle the Shasta-Trinity blazes who was killed last month by a falling tree, the Associated Press said.

Throughout the day Wednesday, firefighters came to the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento to show support for their comrades.

"We'll supply them with whatever we can to comfort them," said Sacramento fire chaplain Ward Cockerton. "That's the way the fire family works – it doesn't matter what part of the fire family it is."

The Buckhorn fire is one of two fires in the Trinity Alps Wilderness accessible only by helicopter. It is one of 16 major lightning-ignited wildfires still burning in Northern California.

"They're working in extremely steep and unforgiving land," said Frank Mosbacher, a spokesman with the Eldorado National Forest who also stopped by the hospital. "When there's a tragedy like this, it ripples throughout the whole fire service."

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