Helicopter owned by Ashland man crashes

DAYS CREEK — A helicopter piloted by a Rogue River man struck power lines before it crashed into the South Umpqua River Monday, according to an accident notification posted Tuesday by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The crash injured the pilot, Fred Wittlake, 55, and two Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologists who were conducting fish counts along the river. The FAA notification contained little more information, other than the crash occurred 13 miles outside Canyonville and that the injuries were considered to be minor.

The Bell 206B JetRanger crashed into the river at about 11:40 a.m. within feet of the Tiller Trail Highway in the 13000 block.

Fish biologists Holly Huchko, 34, and Eric Himmelreich, 35, were taken to Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg. Huchko was transferred to Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield, where she was in serious condition in the intensive care unit Tuesday, a hospital spokeswoman said.

Himmelreich was in good condition, a Mercy spokeswoman said.

Wittlake was airlifted from the nearby Days Creek Charter School football field to Sacred Heart, where he was in fair condition, the spokeswoman said.

Huchko suffered a broken back, according to ODFW spokesman Meghan Dugan.

The helicopter is registered to Robert Ferreira of Ashland, according to the FAA.

Siskiyou Transportation and Timberland Helicopters are also listed as owners. Ferreira is president of T L Forest Products on Dead Indian Memorial Road, according to state business records.

Ferreira said that Wittlake suffered a broken arm and ribs.

"He's doing fine, laughing and joking," Ferreira said Monday evening from the hospital.

Tuesday morning, Ferreira said he didn't know what caused the helicopter to crash.

"We're still under investigation," he said. "We had an accident. The important thing is the people, and that's what we're still involved in this morning."

The helicopter was removed from the water around 5:30 p.m. Monday. Ferreira said he expected the FAA to look at the aircraft Tuesday, then it will be destroyed and salvaged for scrap metal, he said.

Days Creek resident Pat Storms said she saw the helicopter flying "sideways" and low as it passed her home, which is across the river from Days Creek school in the 11000 block of Tiller Trail Highway.

"I heard it first. It was so loud it drew my attention," she said. "I thought, 'Gosh, it's way too low.' " Shortly after that, she heard sirens.

"I knew when I heard all the sirens, it was that helicopter," Storms said.

Days Creek resident Bob Danskin, who lives in the 13000 block of Tiller Trailer Highway, said he heard the helicopter going "low and slow" along the river shortly before it crashed.

"Something didn't sound right. I heard a 'pop' and a 'bang' and then quiet," he said.

Roseburg Fire Marshal Tony DiMare said the state fire marshal's HazMat team sent firefighters to the scene to clean up about 40 gallons of fuel that spilled into the river.

DiMare said the team deployed booms and absorbent pads into the river and remained for six hours.

"Their goal is to prevent the environmental damage," he said. "They're trying to get those into the waster as fast as they could."

The biologists aboard the helicopter were counting spawning nests, also called redds, in the river. The information gathered from population surveys helps set fishing regulations each year, Dugan said. The department also uses helicopters to count deer and elk populations.

Pacific Power spokesman Tom Gauntt said the crash took down a transmission line. Some 320 customers in the Days Creek area were without electricity between 11:35 a.m. and 1:32 p.m., he said.

Reporter Betsy Swanback can be reached at 541-957-4208. Reporter Garrett Andrews can be reached at 541-957-4218 or gandrews@nrtoday.com. Reporter Jessica Prokop and City Editor Don Jenkins contributed to this report.

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