Buckhorn Fire Kills Nine

There have been conflicting reports about this since it happened Tuesday evening. What is known is that nine people lost their lives in a helicopter crash while leaving the Buckhorn Fire.

An Oregon-based firefighter contractor Thursday identified six of its seven employees who died in the fiery helicopter crash that killed nine people in Trinity County.

Grayback Forestry Inc. of Merlin, Ore., which had 10 people on board, made the announcement about two hours after company President Mike Wheelock addressed the media at a hospital news conference in Redding.

“The families and firefighters have been through a tragedy that will forever affect them,” Wheelock said in the lobby of Mercy Medical Center.

It’s the largest loss of life on any one incident that Grayback, founded in 1979, has experienced, company spokeswoman Kelli Matthews said.

Wheelock spoke after visiting with firefighter Richard Schroeder, 42, one of three Grayback firefighters who survived the Tuesday night crash of a Sikorsky S-61N helicopter in rugged terrain 15 miles northwest of Junction City.

The six Grayback firefighters killed were Shawn Blazer, 30, of Medford, Ore.; Scott Charlson, 25, of Phoenix, Ore.; Matthew Hammer, 23, of Grants Pass, Ore.; Edrik Gomez, 19, of Ashland, Ore.; Bryan Rich, 29, of Medford; and David Steele, 19, of Ashland.

Grayback officials said they are continuing attempts to reach the family of the seventh man.

Meanwhile, a small memorial service was held in the Incident Command Post in Junction City on Thursday evening for the nine fire personnel killed in the helicopter crash.

Charlson, Gomez and Rich were working their first season for Grayback. Steele and Blazer were in their second season, and it was Hammer’s fourth season, Matthews said.

The seven firefighters, one helicopter crew member and a U.S. Forest Service employee died in the crash. The Forest Service employee was a pilot on board acting as an observer, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Rabuck said Thursday evening the agency knows the pilot’s identity but is not releasing it. She didn’t know whether the family had been notified.

The helicopter was owned and operated by Carson Helicopters Inc., which has an office in Grants Pass.

William Coultas, one of the two private pilots, was injured in the crash and is in critical condition at University of California at Davis Medical Center in Sacramento.

The co-pilot who died was Roark Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine in far northeastern Oregon.

Schwanenberg’s wife, Christine, said her husband had been flying for Carson Helicopters for nearly 15 years.

“We just celebrated our 20th anniversary… he had been flying years before we met,” she said by phone from her home. “He felt very responsible for being the best pilot and best employee. He felt responsible for the people who were flying under him.”

Schwanenberg said she was told her husband’s helicopter had crashed about two hours after the accident.

Late Thursday, Schroeder’s condition at Mercy Medical Center was upgraded to fair.

Grayback employee Jonathan Frohreich, 18, is in critical condition at UC Davis Medical Center. Michael Brown, 20, also of Grayback, is in fair condition at UC Davis.

At Thursday’s press news conference in Redding, Mercy trauma surgeon Ian Grady said Schroeder has superficial burns to his face and a broken back. Schroeder is expected to be released from the hospital within a day or two, Grady said.

Wheelock said Schroeder, whose family is with him in his hospital room, has been emotionally traumatized by the crash.

Wheelock declined to say what Schroeder told him about the crash, saying that’s a story for another day.

Schroeder told The Los Angeles Times that he blacked out on impact and had a body on him when he awoke. He shoved the body aside and saw that the helicopter’s tail was on fire, Schroeder told the Times.

“I’m not dying here,” Schroeder told the Times. Schroeder unbuckled himself and kicked out a partially broken window, scampering up the slope once he got outside, he said.

The helicopter exploded as Schroeder watched. “I was totally shocked. I lost all my friends,” Schroeder told the newspaper.

The 10 Grayback firefighters involved in the crash were part of a 20-person crew that had been camping out for about four days defending a fire line on the north end of the Buckhorn Fire in the Iron Complex. Tuesday night, the weather had changed and the firefighters were being evacuated off the mountainside, Wheelock said.

“The first 10-person crew were successfully transported. After that, your information is as good as mine — there was an accident,” Wheelock said.

Wheelock defended the training and experience of his firefighters.

“We put people and safety before any money,” Wheelock said.

Meanwhile, the Trinity County Sheriff’s Department issued a press news release Thursday evening that said initial reports of the crash it got from the Forest Service turned out to be wrong.

Information first received by the Trinity County sheriff about 8:15 p.m. Tuesday said a helicopter had crashed with possibly 16 on board, with four moderate injuries, three minor injuries and nine uninjured who were at the site, the release said.

But more than six hours later, at 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, the sheriff’s dispatch center was contacted by the Forest Service Incident Command Team for the Iron Complex advising that there were nine firefighters unaccounted for, according to the sheriff’s release.

Rabuck of the Forest Service said the “emotional element and shock” of what was witnessed may have added to the confusion.

“Any time there is an emotional crisis, the human reaction to that is wide and varied,” Rabuck said. “Some people can remain calm while others — and I’m not saying anybody was freaking out — can’t. There is a mass amount of confusion when you have smoke and fire.

“There is so much speculation here; we can run in circles chasing our tails. I think we did a heck of a job responding.”

Asked at the press news conference if the accident will change the way Grayback does its job, Wheelock said, “We’re going to look into everything at this point.”

“Please keep us in your thoughts and prayers,” he said.

Grayback has about 60 firefighters battling blazes in the north state. The company does contract work with the Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Forestry, Wheelock said.


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