WALKER, Calif. – Television reporter Terri Russell was watching the skies over a blazing wildfire when a plane came into view, trailing a red flow of fire retardant. Suddenly, both wings snapped off and flashed with flames as they separated.
The fiery fuselage rolled left and nosed into the ground, exploding in flames and a mushroom of black smoke and killing all three crew members.
"It was almost surreal," Russell said. "You saw it go down and for a second, I thought, 'Is that really what I saw?'"
The C-130 transport was fighting a 10,000-acre wildland blaze that forced 400 people to evacuate and continued to threaten this Northern California resort town.
Russell's Reno, Nev., news crew caught the fiery crash on tape while interviewing a man who was watching the skies with his own camcorder.
Federal investigators were trying to determine the cause of the crash. Two other air tankers and helicopters used to drop water on the flames were grounded as a precaution.
"Right now, we're working on gathering information and we're just beginning," National Transportation Safety Board investigator Georgia Petersen said by telephone before leaving for the crash site.
Witnesses said the plane crashed at midafternoon in a field just east of U.S. Highway 395 — within 150 feet of an auto shop.
"I'm standing here looking at the tail section," shop owner Mike Mandichak said. "My shop is right next door. It almost hit it."
He said an employee who witnessed the crash saw the plane pull up, then a brief explosion.
"The wings let go upwards. The fuselage went across the highway, which is about another 50 yards, hundred yards. He nosed in on an angle and he just broke apart," he told Associated Press Radio.
The fire from the crash threatened about 10 structures in the immediate area, including homes, trailers and the mechanic's shop before it was brought under control.
A firefighter in a water tanker truck responding to the crash was injured when the truck overturned on a road east of Walker, which is about 90 miles south of Reno and 25 miles north of Yosemite. His condition was being evaluated at a Reno hospital.
The wildfire began Saturday afternoon in a remote section of the Humbolt-Toiyabe National Forest that the Marines use for survival training. Unexploded ordnance in the steep, rugged area was slowing containment efforts, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.
Most residents who were forced to evacuate were allowed to return on Monday. Many had made a narrow escape on Sunday as erratic winds pushed the flames into neighborhoods and within 100 feet of U.S. 395.
Mark Simon was napping when he heard knocking.
"The officer came to the door and said, 'You ready to go?'"
Fire spokesman Kirk Frosdick said the fire was caused by humans but had no other details. The fire was 10 percent contained Monday evening, and fire bosses hoped to have the flames surrounded by Thursday. It had grown to more than 10,000 acres by Monday night.
One home, a garage and a travel trailer burned. Scores of other homes stood empty but intact on Monday with blackened sagebrush up to their porches and white ash drifting down from the blazing hillside a few hundred feet away.