SAN FRANCISCO - Fire raging through rugged, dense terrain was complicating efforts Thursday to recover victims and evidence from the remote part of a Northern California forest where a firefighting helicopter crashed. Nine people were presumed dead, but four others were rescued.
The aircraft was carrying 11 firefighters and two pilots when it went down and was destroyed by fire Tuesday night in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board. The crash occurred just after the helicopter had picked up firefighters and lifted off from a small clearing in the forest to take them back to camp, officials said.
Four injured people - three firefighters and a pilot - were flown to hospitals. They were rescued from the burning wreckage by firefighters on the ground who had been waiting for another helicopter to pick them up, said Jennifer Rabuck, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.
Eight firefighters and a pilot were presumed dead. The wreckage of the Sikorsky S-61N helicopter was still smoldering Thursday morning, according to Carson Helicopters Inc., which owned and operated the chopper.
It was the deadliest wildfire-fighting incident since 1994, when 14 firefighters were killed in a wildfire near Glenwood Springs, Colo. In 2003, eight Oregon firefighters returning home after fighting a blaze in Idaho were killed when their van collided with a truck outside Vale, Ore.
Lynn Ward, a spokeswoman for Trinity County Sheriff's Department, said Thursday that crews had not yet begun recovering bodies from the crash site because of the active fire in the area and the difficult terrain.
The National Transportation Safety Board said it had dispatched a team of investigators to survey the wreckage and to begin the long process of determining what caused the helicopter to crash.
Ten of the firefighters, including the three in the hospital, were employed by firefighting contractor Grayback Forestry, according to Kelli Matthews, a spokeswoman for the Merlin, Ore.-based company.
Grayback's tally showed that seven of its employees on the helicopter were missing. All seven were from southern Oregon and were in their 20s and 30s, said Leslie Habetler, a Grayback spokeswoman. Their names have not been released.
A pilot and a Forest Service employee were also among the missing, Carson spokesman Bob Madden said. The company identified the missing pilot as Roark Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine, Ore.
'The probability of him not surviving is very great,' Schwanenberg's wife, Christine Schwanenberg, said Thursday.
He 'lived and breathed' flying to fight fires, she said. 'He felt responsible for making a difference in this world.'