Above: Andy Mills, operations manager for Carson Helicopters, takes a moment to compose himself during a press conference Thursday in Merlin to release more details about a crash that likely killed several firefighters and other personnel in Northern California Tuesday. Below: NTSB investigators flew Thursday to the wreckage of a Sikorsky S-61N that crashed Tuesday, killing one crew member and eight firefighters.

Tragedy takes six locals' lives

Six of the firefighters presumed dead following the crash of a Sikorsky S-61 helicopter Tuesday evening in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest are from Jackson and Josephine counties.

Grayback Forestry Inc., which has offices in Central Point and Merlin, released the names of the six employees late Thursday.

They include Shawn Blazer, 30, of Medford; Scott Charlson, 25, of Phoenix; Matthew Hammer, 23, of Grants Pass; Edrik Gomez, 19, of Ashland; Bryan Rich, 29, of Medford; and David Steele, 19, of Ashland.

Grayback has not yet released the name of a seventh firefighter feared killed in the crash, pending notification of next of kin.

Three other Grayback firefighters from Medford survived the crash along with a copilot from Cave Junction. All four are being treated in California hospitals.

"We are devastated by this," said Grayback owner Mike Wheelock in a prepared statement.

"We train long and hard to make sure our crews are safe on the fire line. This kind of tragedy is something you just can't plan for."

Grayback firefighters Michael Brown, 20, and Jonathan Frohreich, 18, both of Medford, were recovering in the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. Medford resident Rick Schroeder, 42, is in Mercy Medical Center in Redding.

All Grayback resources at the nearly 18,000-acre Buckhorn fire some 35 miles northwest of Redding are returning to their home base, Wheelock said. The company had two 20-person fire crews working the fire.

Among the 13 people on board the aircraft when it crashed in the Trinity Alps Wilderness was a U.S. Forest Service aviation expert, according to Kitty Higgins, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash. The federal employee's name and hometown have not yet been released.

Speaking at a press conference in Weaverville, Calif., Higgins described the federal employee as a "check airman" whose job it was to check out pilots. The procedure is routine, she stressed, noting both pilots were very experienced.

"Firefighting is a dangerous but very noble profession," she said. "These individuals risk their lives to protect the rest of us."

Investigators would be interviewing the roughly 30 firefighters who witnessed the crash, she said. A reconnaissance team was deployed to the site Thursday afternoon, in part to determine what would be needed to recover any remains and the wreckage, she said.

The helicopter, owned by Carson Helicopters Inc. of Merlin, had just refueled before it crashed shortly after lifting off from a helipad in the Trinity Alps Wilderness at 7:45 p.m.

During the same news briefing, Trinity County Undersheriff Eric Palmer said it is with "fair certainty" that all nine missing people are dead.

In another press conference earlier Thursday in Merlin, Talent resident Andy Mills, 50, operations manager for Carson, identified pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 55, of Lostine, as the missing pilot who is presumed dead.

The copilot, William "Bill" Coultas, 44, of Cave Junction, is in the UC David Medical Center's burn ward in Sacramento where he was operated on Thursday morning, Mills said.

"Both of them are highly experienced command helicopter pilots," Mills said. "Between the two of them, they have a little over 25,000 hours of flight time. ... these men knew what they were doing."

Wheelock, in a statement posted late Thursday on Grayback's Web site, said the company's firefighters had been "heroically defending a section of critical line that had to be held to avoid serious, long-term problems" for four days before the crash.

"The weather had changed and the firefighters were being evacuated off the mountainside," he said. "The first 10-person crew was successfully transported to base camp and the helicopter returned for the remaining part of the crew. And then the accident occurred."

The helicopter came to rest about 1,000 feet down the mountain from the helipad, said Mills, who has flown over the site. The helipad is on a sharp ridge about 6,000 feet above sea level, he said.

Three of the survivors were able to extract themselves from the wreckage while the fourth was pulled out by firefighters on the ground, officials said.

The firm had three aircraft battling wildfires in the Iron complex, which includes the Buckhorn fire, located in the forest.

"They had already been into the helipad twice — they had already made two retrievals of firefighter teams from the same pad," Mills said of the helicopter crew that crashed. "They went back for a third trip, loaded up the team, lifted off the helipad, went forward a slight bit, then the aircraft rapidly descended and hit the hillsides."

No bodies had been retrieved by late Thursday, officials said, citing the fire still burning in the area.

"The aircraft has magnesium components and the magnesium cannot be easily put out," Mills said. "It is not safe to be around."

It's unknown whether the aircraft's rotor blade struck a tree, he said.

"Even if it did hit a tree, that's not necessarily the cause of the accident," he said, adding, "We're fact-finding right now."

The crash occurred while the helicopter was en route to another helipad 12 to 15 minutes away, he said. A cockpit voice recorder on board may help investigators, providing it wasn't consumed by the fire, he said.

"That helicopter was inspected every day by a team of two mechanics," he said. "When they are out on fires, they go over the aircraft every evening when they are done flying."

Every 9,000 hours of flying time, the aircraft was stripped and overhauled, he added.

The crash was the first for the company during firefighting operations, he said.

"We have never had a helicopter crash on a fire," he said. "In the last six years, this company has flown over 65,000 flight hours with zero incidents. It's a very safe helicopter and our pilots are among the very best."

Carson has 13 S-61 Sikorsky helicopters, of which 10 are contracted out to the Forest Service to fight fires. The firm grounded its fleet Wednesday but returned to the air on Thursday, Mills said.

"Carson is a family-owned company," he said. "Their first priority is the family, the people who are involved in this. We are going to take care of them first."

He stopped talking for a moment to compose himself.

"Then we'll get on to everything else," he added. "We want to know as much as anybody else what happened. . . . This is a devastating blow to us."

Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 776-4496 or e-mail him at

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