Five firefighters killed in van crash |

Five firefighters killed in van crash

Donna Daniels

A van carrying firefighters from Oregon en route to the Hayman Fire near Denver crashed near Parachute on June 21, killing five. The accident came in the wake of the Coal Seam Fire that started June 8 and burned 12,000 acres around Glenwood Springs and destroyed 29 buildings.

The four firefighters were employees of Grayback Forestry of LaGrande, Ore., a private contractor that hires out firefighting crews.

Retha Shirley, 19, from Baker City, Ore.; Daniel Rama, 28, from Baker City; Jake Martindale, 20, from Boise, Idaho; Bartholomew Bailey, 20, of Corvallis, Ore.; and Zachary Zigich, 18, of Twin Falls, Idaho, were killed. Seven firefighters were injured.

The accident occurred 50 miles from the site of the 1994 Storm King Fire in Glenwood Springs that killed 14 firefighters, nine of whom were based out of Oregon.

The accident occurred when the 15-passenger van veered into the median and rolled four times. The driver, Megan Helm, 21, of LaGrande, had overcorrected in trying to bring the van back under control.

The van was one of eight traveling in a convoy to Denver.

Ford F-350 15-passenger vans have gained notoriety for their tendency to roll over. Two months before the accident, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reissued a cautionary warning to users of the vans because of a rollover risk that increases with the number of passengers in the van. A similar warning was issued in 2001.

Despite opposition from some of the families of the firefighters who were killed, District Attorney Mac Myers charged Helm with six misdemeanor counts of careless driving causing death and serious injury in the accident. Many people from Helm’s home state as well as some from Garfield County expressed anger and dismay that she was charged. Others, including Zachary Zigich’s parents, said she was responsible for the fatal crash.

Helm entered a plea of not guilty in Garfield County District Court in Rifle on July 16. Her next hearing will be Jan. 23 in Rifle district court.

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