Efforts To Recover Chopper In Calif. Hampered

Federal investigators have struggled to reach the wreckage of a helicopter that crashed with nine people. They were battling a wildfire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest near Junction City, Calif. Eight firefighters and one crewman are feared dead.

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In Northern California, firefighters continue to battle wildfires in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. That's where a helicopter crashed and then burst into flames on Tuesday night. Eight firefighters and one member of the helicopter crew are missing and presumed dead. As NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, the crash has taken a major toll on one nearby town.

RICHARD GONZALES: Junction City, California is a town of 900 people surrounded by mountains and national forests. All summer, the population here has felt the heat and smoke of wildfires. Now the town is feeling the loss of nine people they regard as heroes.

The crash happened just north of Junction City, in a remote area that still lies under a heavy blanket of smoke. Nancy Barnes(ph) runs the general store where firemen come in for water and soft drinks. She says the town's feeling a lot of grief right now.

Ms. NANCY BARNES: They're already coming in: Where are we going to donate? Where can we take the money? Is there something we can do? But we don't know yet because we don't know exactly who it is. Just everybody's crying. It's sad. Sorry. I don't mean to cry, but it is. I feel sorry for the families. Poor guys. That's all I can say.

GONZALES: Getting to the wreckage has been all but impossible, given the harshness of the terrain. Only four people of the 13 on board escaped with their lives. One of them was firefighter Richard Schroeder, who's now hospitalized in serious condition. Schroeder's mother, Linda Parks(ph), says her son told her he got knocked out in the crash and woke up to find a body on top of him.

Ms. LINDA PARKS (Mother): He wiggled out of the safety harness and got out and squirmed out where the window was, I guess. He said he seen the windows broke, so he broke it out the rest of the way and got out.

GONZALES: Most of the firefighters are from Oregon, part of a private company that has a contract with the Forest Service to fight wildfires. The helicopter was a big, military-style Sikorsky, owned by Carson Helicopters of Grants Pass, Oregon. Bob Madden, a company spokesman, said the chopper received twice-a-day inspections and had no known mechanical problems.

Mr. BOB MADDEN (Carson Helicopters): With firefighting, we've never even had an incident, a dent, and we've been in major fire-fighting operations in the U.S. and Canada, Mexico and Australia for the past 10 years, and Tuesday night we had 12 aircraft on contract with the Forest Service, and this morning, of course, we have 11.

GONZALES: As federal investigators try to determine the cause of the crash, they may count heavily on eyewitness accounts from the four survivors. Did the chopper clip a tree as it was carrying the firefighters off the fire line? Was the pilot disoriented by heavy smoke? Or was there some kind of mechanical failure? So far, there are no conclusive answers.

Carson Helicopters' Bob Madden says the company grounded its remaining 11 choppers for one day yesterday as a show of respect.

Mr. MADDEN: This is a tragedy of its first kind with us and firefighting. When you have an incident like this, we stood everybody down, much as you would if you were a firefighter on the line and one of your colleagues was killed.

GONZALES: It's an emotion that connects with the people of Junction City, where they can see the flames and smell the smoke and know how much they count on the firefighters.

Richard Gonzales, NPR News, Junction City, California.

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