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Helicopter crash & fire

A preliminary report released Thursday by the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that a loss of power on takeoff caused a fire fighting helicopter to crash, killing nine on board.

Witnesses to the accident told investigators the aircraft had lifted off more slowly than normal before it struck a tree and crashed in a remote Northern California forest.

They said the nose of the helicopter hit a tree about 40 to 50 feet above ground and that the blades hit trees and branches before the crash.

The Sikorsky S-61N was ferrying ten firefighters, two pilots and a US. Forest Service employee back to base camp when it crashed in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest Tuesday night. Nine men died including seven firefighters and the pilot all from Oregon. Four others were injured.

Those killed were: Shawn Blazer, 30, from Medford; Scott Charleson, 25, from Phoenix, Ore.; Matthew Hammer, 23, from Grants Pass, Ore.; Edrik Gomez, 19, from Ashland, Ore.; Bryan Rich, 29, from Medford; David Steele, 19, from Ashland and Jim Ramage, of Redding, Steve Renno, 21 from Cave Junction, and Roark Schwanenberg, 5, of Lostine, Ore.

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The Carson Helicopter Sikorsky S-61 was carrying ten firefighters and two pilots when it went down Tuesday night in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, according to Leslie Habetler, a spokesperson for Grayback Forestry, based in Oregon.

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The crash happened on takeoff, about 150 yards from where it lifted off. About 30 people witnessed the crash.

Witnesses reported that the chopper took off and moved forward slower than normal. NTSB officials said the accident started when the nose of the chopper hit a tree, then the rotor blades hit trees.

The chopper went down on its left side, the cabin quickly filled with dense, black smoke and then it caught fire.

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Three of the survivors were identified as Jonathan Frohreich, listed in serious condition, Michael Brown, listed in fair condition, and Rick Schroeder, in serious but stable. They are also from Southern Oregon.

The copilots of the helicopter worked for Carson's West Coast operations, based in Grants Pass, Oregon.

Of the two pilots, one was identified as 54-year-old Roark Schwanenberg of Lostine in northeastern Oregon. Carson Helicopters of Grants Pass said Thursday morning he is missing and presumed dead.

The copilot and fourth survivor was identified as William Coultas of Cave Junction. Carson said he escaped the Tuesday crash and was in serious but stable condition.

Officials said one survivor went back into the burning wreckage and pulled out another victim, who survived.

Two of the survivors were actually on fire when they escaped from the wreckage.

Leora Frohreich, Jonathan Frohreich's grandmother, said this was the young man's first working as a wildland firefighter and that the experience had persuaded him to further his education. He planned to attend a mechanics school this fall. He had worked on a fire near Williams, Ore., for three weeks and then was on the Shasta-Trinity fire for four days, the grandmother said. His crew was being flown out for some rest when the helicopter crashed, she said.

"I'm so thankful because he's just lucky to be alive," Frohreich said, adding that the firefighter's parents, sister and girlfriend had gone to Sacramento to be with him. "You can't be in a crash like that and not hurt."

Gregor said. FAA and National Transportation Safety Board investigators were headed to the scene, about 215 miles northwest of Sacramento.

The firefighters had been working at the northern end of a fire burning on more than 27 square miles in the national forest, part of a larger complex of blazes that is mostly contained.

Firefighters who were waiting to be picked up helped rescue the four injured people after the helicopter crashed around 7:30 p.m. and caught fire, Jennifer Rabuck, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service said. About three dozen firefighters had to spend the night on the mountain because it became too dark for other helicopters to land, she said.

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All 12 of the company's helicopters are being used for firefighting in Oregon and California, said Bob Madden, Carson's director of corporate affairs.

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

Ten of the firefighters, including the three in the hospital, were employed by firefighter contractor Grayback Forestry, based in Merlin, Oregon, according to company spokeswoman Kelli Matthews.

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She said the company was in the process of notifying families of the missing firefighters as well as fielding calls from anxious relatives asking whether their family members were among the injured or dead.

Before Tuesday's helicopter crash, three firefighters were killed while on duty in California this year, including one firefighter also assigned to battle the Shasta-Trinity blazes who was killed late last month by a falling tree.

The Forest Service and the sheriff's department would not disclose Wednesday whether they had recovered the bodies of any victims from the crash site or what was involved in the search effort. The Trinity County coroner's office said it did not have any information to release.

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Mike Wheelock, Grayback's founder and owner, said the company had two 20-person crews working the fire, a mix of young seasonal firefighters and professionals.

"We are just right now concentrating on all the families and our employees," Wheelock said while visiting UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, where two of his injured employees were being treated. "We are very concerned about them because we are very tight-knit."

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