Under a hot sun filtering through skies hazy with smoke from burning forests, a chrome fire bell tolled Friday to honor nine men killed in the crash of a firefighting helicopter in Northern California.
Seven firefighters for Grayback Forestry, a pilot for Carson Helicopters and a U.S. Forest Service inspection pilot died Aug. 5 when their helicopter crashed on takeoff. It was ferrying the crew members from the fire lines in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest.
More than 3,000 family members, friends and firefighters from around the region turned out at the Jackson County fairgrounds in Central Point to pay tribute to the men, most of whom had strong ties to Oregon. Among them were Gov. Ted Kulongoski and Forest Service Chief Abigail Kimbell.
The bell tolled a signal that firefighters use to say that one or more of their own will not return to the station.
"To the families, I am so sorry we did not bring your loved ones home," Grayback Forestry President Mike Wheelock said, his voice filled with emotion. "To the public, keep these firefighters in your prayers. The fire season has a way to go. Even as we are sitting here today, there are battles raging in the forest."
Surviving members of the Grayback crew in gray T-shirts and green firefighting pants presented the families of the fallen with folded American flags; chromed Pulaskis, a combination ax and hoe that is the basic tool of wilderness firefighters; and shining helmets _ red hardhats for the firefighters and white flight helmets for the pilots.
Before the presentations, an honor guard unfolded the flags, held them out for display and then folded them back up. As bagpipes and drums played "Amazing Grace," an air tanker and spotter plane used to fight wildfires roared overhead.
Catherine LaRue said her son who died in the crash, Caleb Renno of Cave Junction, almost decided to attend a family reunion rather than go back to work, but ultimately decided to rejoin his crew.
"I know in my heart all his friends who died with him were living their prayer," she said. "We don't want to remember our sons there," in the wreckage of the crash, "but for the way they had lived. They were pretty jazzed and happy because they held the lines. And they loved helicopter rides."
The Grayback crew had been fighting a small wilderness blaze outside Redding, Calif. Although the fire was not threatening homes, the Forest Service decided to fight it because it was creating smoke problems for nearby communities and threatened to block a highway between Redding and the coast.
The cause of the crash is being investigated. Steve Metheny of Carson Helicopters, which owned the helicopter, asked the grieving to take comfort in the knowledge that what is learned from the crash will save the lives of others.
"You had the extraordinary gift of having these men in you lives," he said. "Perhaps their gift will be saving the life of a future firefighter or helicopter pilot."
U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Ore., noted that the crash's toll was the worst loss of life among wildland firefighters since a fire in Colorado in 1994 that killed 14.
Besides Renno, the dead are Jim Ramage, 63, a Forest Service inspector pilot from Redding; Edrik Gomez, 19, a Southern Oregon University student from Coquille, Ore.; David E. Steele, 19, a Central Oregon Community College student from Ashland; Bryan J. Rich, 29, of Medford; Shawn P. Blazer, 30, of Medford; Matthew Hammer, 23, of Grants Pass, who was working his last summer of firefighting after graduating from college; pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine; and Scott Charlson, 25, a student at Southern Oregon University.