As investigators arrived Wednesday to determine the cause of a fatal air tanker crash at Yosemite National Park, officials temporarily grounded the Cal Fire airplane fleet and rescuers retrieved the pilot's body from a steep canyon.
Geoffrey Craig Hunt, 62, of San Jose, died Tuesday in the crash as he battled the Dog Rock fire just inside the park's west entrance. In keeping with wildland firefighting tradition, a rescuer kept vigil with the body overnight on the steep slope of a 2,500-foot granite crag, officials said.
At dawn Wednesday, a Yosemite search and rescue team hiked to the site to retrieve the body, which was brought down and placed on a flag-draped gurney, into an ambulance and then a black SUV. An honor guard of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials and park rangers lined each side of Highway 140 as the body was moved.
Behind the stricken faces of the honor guard, smoke continued to rise from where the plane crashed. Helicopters, meanwhile, kept up water drops over the fire, which grew to 210 acres and was 0% contained.
"Those guys up there had to keep taking care of business," said Gary Wuchner, Yosemite's fire spokesman. "But don't think for a second that this moment isn't on their minds."
Officials said Hunt, who went by Craig, was a 13-year veteran of fighting wildfires for the state. He was a contract pilot with DynCorp International, which operates all 23 of Cal Fire's Grumman S-2T fixed-wing tankers. Hunt flew Tanker 81, based in Hollister. Survivors include his wife and two daughters.
The crash occurred in the early hours of the fire, which ignited Tuesday afternoon. Tanker 81 was one of four planes being used to drop retardant. The state's entire tanker fleet remained grounded Wednesday, and aircraft from the U.S. Forest Service assisted.
"It's going to be the pilots' choices whether they're ready to fly again," said Daniel Berlant, a Cal Fire spokesman.
Firefighting continued Wednesday, with helicopters dipping buckets into the Merced River and ferrying water to douse the blaze.
Because of the fire's location — on the outskirts of Yosemite in El Portal — visitors and firefighters alike saw the crash.
Steve Speltz, a clerk at El Portal Market, was arranging vegetables Tuesday when children ran in crying.
"They were 4, 5, 6 [years old], and they watched the plane crash," he said.
Tom Medema, a park spokesman, also saw the aircraft go down.
"I was standing right here," he said Wednesday outside the market. "We were watching the air show."
Witnesses said the plane hit the side of the valley's granite wall and burst into flames, engulfing the ridge in fire.
"There was no denying what [the children] had witnessed," Medema said. "The parents were talking about heroes, how these guys all over the world risk their lives."
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived Wednesday and took control of the crash site, which included an extensive debris field both on the side of the escarpment and on the roadway below.
The team will quickly gather as much evidence as possible, said Michael Barr, an expert in aviation crash investigations and former director of USC's Aviation Safety program.
"Right now they are not doing any analysis," he said. "They are picking up pieces and collecting data."
Officials with the U.S. Park Service and other agencies were collecting photos taken by bystanders in the El Portal area and interviewing eyewitnesses.
Barr said crash investigators would remove what's left of the plane and attempt to reassemble it at another site, collect the plane's maintenance and flight records as well as medical and other information about the pilot, and possibly reconstruct the pilot's actions in his last 72 hours.
Crash investigations routinely take months to conclude, Barr said.
Gov. Jerry Brown offered condolences and ordered that Capitol flags be flown at half-staff.
A Cal Fire air tanker last crashed in 2006, department officials said. Cal Fire acquired 26 of the tankers from the Defense Department in 1996. The oldest is now 60 years old. They were originally owned by the U.S. Navy and used as anti-submarine warfare planes.