Ashland man presumed dead in copter crash

A 19-year-old Ashland man was confirmed as one of seven passengers and a co-pilot presumed dead in a helicopter crash Tuesday evening in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.

David Steele was in his second season fighting fires for Grayback Forestry, Inc. He was studying to become a firefighter and EMT at Central Oregon Community College, according to an e-mail the family sent out after learning of their son's presumed death on Wednesday. It will be days before bodies are identified by dental records, according to the e-mail. He is the son of Paul and Susanne Steele and is a 2007 Ashland High School graduate.

"His dream was to be a firefighter and he was going to school for that very reason," his father said this morning. "It's just heartbreaking, and he'll be missed by all those who knew him. He gave his life protecting others. He's a hero."

Services will be held at Our Lady of the Mountain Catholic Church. Times are yet to be determined.

The names of the remaining six missing firefighters and two flight crew members were unavailable this morning and will not be released until all family members have been notified, said Kelli Matthews, a spokesperson for Grayback. She could not confirm if others were from Ashland.

The firefighters were hired by a Southern Oregon contracting company and riding in a Sikorsky S-61 helicopter owned by Carson Helicopters Inc. of Grants Pass. They were employed by Grayback Forestry Inc. of Central Point, according to a company spokeswoman.

Four others aboard the aircraft, including the pilot, were injured when the helicopter was destroyed by fire after crashing "under unknown circumstances," said Ian Gregor, spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration.

The three injured firefighters, all from Medford, and the unidentified pilot have been hospitalized in California.

The crash occurred at about 7:45 p.m. as the aircraft was lifting off near the roughly 15,850-acre Buckhorn fire burning in the Trinity Alps Wilderness some 35 miles northwest of Redding, Calif.

Both the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA released statements indicating the eight people unaccounted for were presumed dead. The NTSB dispatched a team of investigators Wednesday to determine the cause of the crash. Two representatives from the Office of Transportation Disaster Assistance are on that team.

The pilot is in serious condition at the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento. The pilot's family is in the medical center with him, according to Bob Madden, Carson's director of corporate affairs. The name of the pilot, who works for Carson, has not yet been released.

Grayback firefighters Michael Brown, 20, and Jonathan Frohreich, 18, both of Medford, were also being treated at the medical center. Brown was upgraded to fair condition late Wednesday while Frohreich remained in critical condition, according to the hospital and fire officials.

Another Grayback employee, Rick Schroeder, 42, also of Medford, was in serious but stable condition at Mercy Medical Center in Redding, officials said.

"We know we had ten firefighters on board and that seven are missing," said Grayback spokeswoman Leslie Habetler. "It's been pretty hard."

Grayback owner Mike Wheelock told The Associated Press that he was in Sacramento handling notification of employees' families. He did not confirm any deaths, however.

In Medford, Leora Frohreich, Jonathan Frohreich's grandmother, said the family is relieved the young man survived. This was his first season as a firefighter, she said. Her grandson, who attended South Medford High School, and the other firefighters were being flown out for some rest when the helicopter crashed, she said.

"We're so very, very thankful he's alive," she said, adding that his parents, Rick and Karen Frohreich of Medford, as well as his girlfriend, are in Sacramento to be with him. "You can't be in a crash like that and not be hurt.

"He seems to be coming along all right," she said. "The burns will heal. He also has a back injury but he's moving his legs. He's going to be all right. We're just so sorry for those young people who lost their lives."

Both the FAA and the NTSB reported there were 13 on board, including the crew. No one could account for the discrepancy between the number of passengers reported by Grayback and the agencies.

Madden confirmed that the co-pilot from Carson was among those missing.

Until Tuesday's crash, the firm had an unblemished record when it came to fighting fire from the air, he said.

"This is the first time we've had a fatal crash while fighting fire and we've been in business for 50 years," he said. "We had 12 aircraft fighting fires on the West Coast when this happened. Firefighting for us is a very typical experience.

"This is the first time we've had an accident like this."

The helicopter was shuttling fire crews when it crashed about 100 feet from a landing zone shortly after taking off, said Ron Sanow, a Shasta-Trinity forest spokesman.

The crash has been devastating to everyone in the firefighting community, he said.

"I just took a call from a parent who was trying to figure out if one of the missing might be their son," he said. "That's difficult...."

"I ask the public to join me in our thoughts and prayers for the fire personnel, family and friends," forest supervisor Sharon Heywood said in a prepared statement.

"We are praying for the swift recovery of all the victims, and our hearts go out to their loved ones," added California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

The employees of both the Rogue River-Siskiyou National Forest and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management's Medford District, many of whom are experienced firefighters, also expressed deep sympathy for the crash victims and their families, said forest spokeswoman Patty Burel.

The Buckhorn fire, now 87 percent contained by a fire line, was sparked by a lightning storm in mid-July. There are no homes in the wilderness area where the terrain was described by Sanow as "steep, remote and rugged."

Recovery efforts have been complicated by the crash site's remote location, said U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Rabuck.

Firefighters waiting to be picked up at the landing site helped rescue the four injured people, she said. Following the crash, about three dozen firefighters were forced to spend the night on the mountain after darkness made it impossible for other helicopters to land, she said.

Trinity County Sheriff Lorrac Craig said Wednesday that two of his deputies were at the crash site, but they can't get to the helicopter because it was still burning.

There are no hiking trails to the remote site, he said, adding that anyone going to it must be flown in.

"You can reach it by ground, but it may take a day," he said.

Mail Tribune reporter Paul Fattig contributed to this report.

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