Stunned witnesses watch firefighting plane crash in flames near Denver

Friday, July 19th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LYONS, Colo. (AP) _ Bystanders and firefighters looked on in horror as an air tanker disintegrated into flames and crashed while battling a 1,200-acre wildfire near Denver, killing both crew members.

``It was just a collective gasp by everybody. 'Oh my God, it went down,''' Roy Safstrom, who was taking pictures of the wildfire, said after the crash Thursday.

Investigators from the U.S. Forest Service and the National Transportation Safety Board were en route to the scene near the rugged Rocky Mountain National Park, about 45 miles northwest of Denver.

The crew members' names were not immediately released. The crash prompted all firefighting planes nationwide to be grounded for 48 hours while it is investigated.

Ground crews were left somber and shaken. ``I feel pretty sick,'' said Dave Sharman, 42, a volunteer with the Allenspark Fire District. ``Whether you're on the ground or in the air, you're all part of a team. We just lost part of the team,'' he said.

The four-engine PB4Y plane had spent the day dropping fire retardant on the flames and was carrying 2,000 gallons of retardant when it crashed, Forest Service spokeswoman Terri Gates said.

Safstrom was in a group of 15 bystanders who saw the plane break up. ``There was a bright flash of flame on the left wing. The wing came off and after that he spiraled down,'' Safstrom said.

The crash brings to 11 the number of people killed fighting wildfires nationwide this year. Five died in a traffic accident in Colorado en route to a fire and one was crushed by a fire-damaged tree in Colorado.

Three more were killed in a June crash in California, after the wings on a C-130A tanker snapped off in the air, sending the fuselage to the ground in a fireball.

After the Walker, Calif., crash, the nation's C-130A tankers were grounded. Hawkins & Powers Aviation Inc., of Greybull, Wyo., owned the plane that crashed in Walker and the PB4Y that went down Thursday.

``Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the family members,'' said Ryan Powers, operations manager of the company. ``The crews are like family to all of us _ it's a pretty tight-knit community here.''

The wildfire erupted Wednesday and spread quickly. About 120 homes were evacuated on Thursday and 300 were threatened. Officials said the fire was manmade but could not say whether it was deliberately set.

Elsewhere across the West on Thursday, rain slowed wildfires in Nevada but officials in Oregon posted voluntary evacuation notices in the small towns of Ruch, near the California line, and Paisley, in the central highlands.

More than 161,000 acres have been charred in sections of high desert and rugged mountain forest in the eastern and southern parts of Oregon during what has been an early and active fire season.

``In my 35 years in the Forest Service, this is the most activity I've ever seen,'' said David Widmark of the Northwest Interagency Coordination Center in Portland, Ore.

In southern California, a brush fire erupted Thursday near a highway in San Luis Obispo County and quickly grew to more than 1,500 acres, forcing the evacuation of 24 homes and a campground.

In Yellowstone National Park, damp weather aided the battle against a 9,000-acre fire along the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone National Park as containment rose to 20 percent.

Lightning sparked at least nine new blazes in the last two days in western Wyoming's Bridger-Teton National Forest. The largest blaze there is estimated at 3,855 acres.