Details Emerge in California Helicopter Crash
Seven firefighters, two pilots killed in crash


Posted: 08-10-2008
Updated: 08-11-2008 09:27:24 AM

CYNTHIA HUBERT
Sacramento Bee (California)



Transportation officials have found the cockpit voice recorder from a firefighting helicopter that crashed in the rugged Trinity Alps on Thursday, killing nine people and injuring four others.

The device, which should have recorded the last 30 minutes of conversation between pilots, is a key part of the investigation into why the aircraft went down as it lifted weary firefighters from the area, said National Transportation Safety Board member Kitty Higgins.

"It's an important piece of the puzzle," Higgins said, adding that the recorder "is in better shape than we thought it would be" considering the damage to the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter.

NTSB officials will analyze the recording at its laboratory in Washington, D.C., next week, she said. They also will consider interviews with survivors and other witness accounts, the crew's history and work day, reviews of safety and fuel records, and a physical survey of the crash area.

Asked whether the initial investigation suggests a mechanical problem with the helicopter, Higgins refused to speculate. "It's much too early to do that," she said. "It will be a year before we make a conclusion about what happened."

Witnesses told investigators that the helicopter "lifted off more slowly than normal" and seemed sluggish before its nose hit a tree. "Then the rotor struck another tree, and the aircraft crashed on its side" about 150 yards from its takeoff point, Higgins said.

Dense black smoke quickly filled the area as survivors struggled to escape.

The crash, in the remote Trinity Alps Wilderness between Green Mountain and Pony Mountain, is one of the most disastrous of its kind in history, said officials from the U.S. Forest Service.

On Friday, investigators were working with sheriff's and coroner's officials to recover the remains of the dead.

Missing and presumed dead are Shawn Blazer, 30; Scott Charleson, 25; Matthew Hammer, 23; Edrik Gomez, 19; Bryan Rich, 29; David Steele, 19; and Steven Renno, 21. They all worked for Grayback Forestry, Inc., an Oregon-based company that provides contract firefighters. Also killed in the crash were one of the chopper's pilots, Roark Schwanenberg, 54, and Jim Rammage, 63, who worked for the U.S. Forest Service.

Three of the survivors remained at UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento on Friday. Grayback firefighters Jonathan Frohreich, 18, and Michael Brown, 20, were listed in good condition and could be released this weekend, said hospital spokeswoman Carole Gan. The third, co-pilot Bill Coultas, suffered severe burns and remained in critical condition Friday.

A fourth man, Grayback firefighter Richard Schroeder, 42, was in fair condition at Mercy Medical Center in Redding.

All of the dead and injured men lived in Oregon. They had been fighting the Buckhorn fire near Weaverville in Trinity County.

The helicopter was manufactured by Sikorsky in 1964 and had been extensively modified by its owner, Carson Helicopters, for firefighting.

Both of its engines were relatively new: one had 1,000 hours, the other 200 hours. The helicopter's transmission had only 23 hours on it.

About 30 people on the ground witnessed the crash, and officials had interviewed 10 of them as of Friday afternoon.

"The accounts were very consistent," said Higgins.

KILLED IN THE CRASH GRAYBACK FORESTRY EMPLOYEES Shawn Blazer, 30 Medford, Ore.

Scott Charleson, 25 Phoenix, Ore.

Matthew Hammer, 23 Grants Pass, Ore.

Edrik Gomez, 19 Ashland, Ore.

Steven Renno, 21 Cave Junction, Ore.

Bryan Rich, 29 Medford, Ore.

David Steele, 19 Ashland, Ore.

CARSON HELICOPTERS EMPLOYEE Roark Schwanenberg, 54 Lostine, Ore.

FOREST SERVICE EMPLOYEE Jim Rammage, 63 Shasta

INJURED IN THE CRASH GRAYBACK FORESTRY EMPLOYEES Jonathan Frohreich, 18 Medford, Ore. Good condition at UC Davis Medical Center

Richard Schroeder, 42 White City, Ore. Fair condition at Mercy Medical Center in Redding

Michael Brown, 20 Gold Hill, Ore. Good condition at UC Davis Medical Center

CARSON HELICOPTERS EMPLOYEE Bill Coultas, 44 Cave Junction, Ore. Critical condition at UC Davis Medical Center

Call The Bee's Cynthia Hubert, (916) 321-1082. Bee staff writer Wesley DeBerry contributed to this report.

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