9 feared dead after helicopter plummets

Times Staff Writers

A helicopter carrying a firefighting crew crashed in the remote reaches of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, and nine of those on board were missing and feared dead, authorities said Wednesday.

The four others on board were critically injured, according to Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration. Authorities had not yet identified all of the passengers.

The Sikorksy helicopter crashed about 7:45 p.m. Tuesday while taking off from a remote site about 35 miles northwest of Redding in Northern California, officials said.


The chopper was shuttling a hand crew back to its base in Junction City after three days of cutting fire lines in the wilderness. It took off with 11 firefighters and two pilots from a clearing cut by chain saws in the forest on a steep mountainside.

One of the survivors, Richard Schroeder, 42, said in a phone interview from his hospital room in Redding that it seemed that the helicopter’s rotor hit a tree as it was taking off.

A father of five from Medford, Ore., Schroeder said someone behind him screamed for everyone to put their heads under their legs. “He was looking out the window and saw something,” Schroeder said.

Schroeder’s stomach dropped as the helicopter pitched forward and plummeted. He blacked out on impact and came to with a body on him, he said. He shoved the body off and saw that the tail of the aircraft was on fire.

His mouth was bleeding heavily and he could barely breathe. He said he thought, “I’m not dying here,” and unbuckled himself and kicked out a partially broken window. He wiggled his way outside. Men above screamed at him to scramble up the slope.

The helicopter exploded as he watched from above. “I was totally shocked,” he said. “I lost all my friends.”

Schroeder sustained serious injuries to his neck, shoulder and back. He did not suffer any burns, he said.

Another crew on the ground waiting to be shuttled out alerted base camp about the crash, and rescue crews were immediately dispatched to the scene, authorities said.

The FAA and National Transportation Safety Board were sending investigators to the scene to determine why the helicopter failed to lift off.

Ten of the victims, including Schroeder, are affiliated with Merlin, Ore.-based Grayback Forestry, one of the largest and longest-established private firefighting contractors. The company identified two other survivors also from Medford: Michael Brown, 20, and Jonathan Frohreich, 18. Grayback was still notifying the relatives of the missing individuals Wednesday night and had not released their names.

Brown, Frohreich and another victim were taken to UC Davis Regional Burn Center in Sacramento, where two of them were listed in critical condition and the third was listed in serious condition in the Intensive Care Unit, according to Carole Gan, a hospital spokeswoman.

“All of them have burns,” Gan said, declining to provide additional information on their injuries or identities.

Dennis Hulbert, the U.S. Forest Service aviation director for California, notified the widow of a Forest Service employee who died in the crash.

“It’s too early to know anything,” he said, referring to the cause of the crash. “There are a lot of variables. There was a post-crash fire. It’s still burning. It was horrific.”

The crew was among 1,200 firefighters, assisted by nine helicopters, who were battling the Iron and Alps complex fires in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest that have burned 86,000 acres. Another firefighter assigned to the fires died late last month when he was hit by a falling tree. The lightning fire started June 21 and is 87% contained.

Schroeder said the crew was being transported back for rest because clouds were rolling in and they expected heavy lightning strikes. He said they were the third group to go out from that spot on Tuesday.

“This is a tragic day for firefighters everywhere,” Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said at a news conference. “We are praying for the swift recovery of all the victims, and our hearts go out to their loved ones.”

The Sikorsky S-61 was owned by Carson Helicopters of Grants Pass, Ore., which describes itself as one of the largest firefighting helicopter contractors with the Forest Service and Department of the Interior.

In April, the FAA issued an “airworthiness directive” regarding Sikorsky S-model helicopters after one developed fatigue failures in the main rotor shaft. Carson Helicopters was among the companies alerted to the problem.

The FAA also outlined a list of actions to “prevent structural failure, loss of power to the main rotor, and subsequent loss of control of the helicopter.”

Carson filed comments in May, saying it had been six months since the company had ordered some of the relevant parts from Sikorsky and they were expected to arrive this month.

According to a Times review of Forest Service records, Carson is one of several aviation companies regularly used by the agency to fight wildfires in California. From 2000 to 2007, the company was paid more than $10 million by the Forest Service for its work in the state.

Bob Madden, Carson’s director of corporate affairs, said the S-61 aircraft was inspected twice a day as part of its agreement with the Forest Service and was in good shape.

Madden said the company had two pilots aboard the helicopter. One was transported to the burn center at UC Davis and the other is unaccounted for.

The aircraft and crew were assigned to the Iron fire, Madden said. The helicopter is capable of dropping water and fire retardant.

Carson has been in business for 50 years, Madden said, and during the last 10 has been involved in firefighting. The company does business in the United States, Australia, Mexico and Canada.

“Years back, there was an incident in construction, but we’ve never had an incident with serious injury or fatality fighting fire,” Madden said.

Schroeder said he hopes he can be back on the fire lines again. After years of working all sorts of jobs, he started firefighting two years ago with Grayback and felt like he had found his calling.

“He’s a quick-witted young man when it comes to getting out of danger,” said his mother, Linda Parks. “He’s a hero."--

Times staff writer Bettina Boxall contributed to this story.