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Field Notes

Guilty plea in crash that killed Oregon firefighters

Guilty plea in crash that killed Oregon firefighters
This Aug. 7, 2008, file photo shows the wreckage of a Sikorsky S-61N that crashed, killing one crew member and eight firefighters seconds after takeoff while ferrying firefighters from a remote helipad on the Buckhorn Fire in Trinity County back to base camp near Junction City, Calif. Jurors could return a verdict Tuesday, March 27, 2012 in a case that asks them to decide whether a problem with an engine was responsible for a 2008 crash. (AP Photo/Redding Record Searchlight, Greg Barnette, File)
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As the rains come, it seems easy to forget how dry much of the state was and the fires that were raging just a few weeks ago.

With those fires were the hundreds of firefighters who traveled from all over to save homes, land, lives.

In the process, two firefighters in Oregon lost their lives.

The death of a firefighter is always hard to take. Whether it is one fighting a wildfire or the 343 who died at the World Trade Center, there is a sense of tragedy about someone dying in the process of trying to help others.

I was in New York working for another station 12 years ago when the attacks happened, and for months stories would come out about firefighters refusing to leave because they were trying to save  as many people as possible.

Who really thought that the buildings would fall?

And even though there were indications that it might happen, none of the firefighters cared because they had a job to do. And for firefighters, that often means personal safety comes second.

Which brings us to the story of the Iron Complex Forest Fire in Northern California.

On Aug. 5, 2008, a helicopter leased to the United States Forest Service by Oregon-based Carson Helicopters took off with 10 firefighters, a pilot, a co-pilot and an employee of the Forest Service.

They were being evacuated from the front lines of the fire because it had been deemed too dangerous.

It wasn’t even a minute later that they ran into trouble.

“Fly darlin’, fly darlin’, fly darling,” the co-pilot implored according to a transcript that was released as part of the investigation.

To no avail. Moments later the helicopter hit some trees, lost control and crashed into the side of a mountain, killing nine of the 13 on board.

It didn’t take long for this tragedy to become a criminal investigation.

The NTSB determined that the helicopter had weighed more than 19,000 pounds despite the fact it should not have weighed more than 15,480 pounds. By understating the weight of the helicopter and other safety lapses, Carson was responsible for the crash.

After a nearly five-year investigation, federal prosecutors charged two officials at Carson - Levi Phillips, the company’s director of maintenance and Steven Metheny, who was then one of the company’s vice-presidents - with submitting bids to the Forest Service with falsified data, lying about performance capabilities and how much weight they could carry.

They did this, prosecutors charged, to win a $20 million contract to provide helicopters and other firefighting-related services.

They won the contract.

Prosecutors and the NTSB stated that the pilot was using the fraudulent data about how much the helicopter could carry to take off. If he had had real numbers to work with, the crash might not have happened.

In a twist, a jury last year ruled that problems with the engine were behind the crash and awarded the surviving pilot and the widow of one who died $177 million.

General Electric, which lost the suit, had argued the crash occurred because the helicopter had been carrying too much weight.

While I’m not normally one to leap to the defense of multi-billion dollar multi-national companies, GE clearly got the short end of the stick on this one.

Maybe they can take solace that their defense helped federal officials in their investigation.

On Monday, Phillips showed up in Federal Court to plead guilty.

He admitted conspiring to defraud the Forest Service by providing false data. He agreed to testify against Metheny who, prosecutors charge, was the one in charge.

Phillips, an Oregon resident, faces up to 20 years in prison when he is sentenced on April 14.

One of the firefighters on board was 25-year-old Scott Charlson of Medford. He had told his mother he was fighting fires to help people and to help himself pay for college.

After Phillips pleaded guilty, Charlson’s mother said she was grateful.

“Our one big hope is that this changes things,” Nina Charlson told the Mall Tribune. “We don't want history to repeat itself — the mess that greed has caused.”

Amen.

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