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Questions remain for parents of firefighter killed in wreck

Donna Daniels

Parents of one of the firefighters killed in a rollover accident on Interstate 70 near Parachute June 21 have questions about their son’s death.

Zachary Zigich, who would have celebrated his 20th birthday Monday, July 8, was killed when an eastbound van owned by Grayback Forestry Inc. of La Grande, Ore., veered off the roadway onto the median and rolled four times. The crash also killed four other firefighters.

The driver, Megan Helm, 21, has been charged with six misdemeanor counts of careless driving resulting in death and injury. She will appear in Rifle County Court to answer the charges July 31.

The crew was on its way to fight the Hayman Fire southwest of Denver.

Angie and Michael Zigich, of Twin Falls, Idaho, came to Glenwood Springs on June 27 to bring their son’s body home. They visited the scene of the crash in an effort to understand the accident.

Unlike some parents of the dead firefighters opposed to Helm’s being charged in the accident, the Zigichs believe she was at fault.

“She did everything wrong,” Michael Zigich said.

They believe Helm reached down to an ice chest positioned between the front van seats for an ice cream.

“There was ice cream all over the driver’s seat,” Zigich said. “She was not paying attention. It was a gentle curve. She had a huge responsibility, and she blew it.”

The couple also questions whether or not Grayback had safety procedures that would limit the amount of time a driver could spend behind the wheel.

“They said they revised their policy” after the accident, “but they told us they had no policy,” Angie Zigich said.

“They said the drivers were supposed to switch off every two hours, but they didn’t do that,” added Michael Zigich.

Zigich said the convoy of eight vans left La Grande sometime Thursday afternoon. The van Helm was driving stopped in Twin Falls to pick up Zach about 1 a.m. on Friday.

“They pulled over and slept in the van and on the grass from 2 a.m. to 7 a.m., then she gets back behind the wheel,” Zigich said. “It’s obvious what happened. They won’t be able to duck their liability.”

Grayback “is a private contractor. They don’t have Forest Service standards,” Zigich said. “The Forest Service has rules for its own employees.”

Both parents said they would have preferred Zach work for a government agency such as the Forest Service or the Bureau of Land Management, both of which have stringent safety policies. Their daughter Kimberly, 21, is a firefighter with BLM.

Zach had applied to BLM to fight fires but wasn’t called. So he applied to and was hired by a temporary employment agency, Personnel Plus, which contracted him to Grayback, Angie Zigich said.

“It’s heartbreaking, the day he got the job with Grayback he got called for an interview with BLM,” she said.

Out of all the grief has emerged a resolve for Angie and Michael Zigich.

“I want to see some continuity” between federal safety policies and private contractors, Angie Zigich said. “I want someone to oversee these contractors.”

“Federal work-rest guidelines apply,” said White River National Forest Supervisor Martha Ketelle.

Drivers cannot operate a vehicle for more than 10 hours straight in a 16-hour workday, Ketelle said. They must take eight hours off between driving shifts.

The guidelines, she said, “make no distinction between contract and federal employees.

“We’re saying these rules apply,” she said.

The Forest Service is conducting an investigation of the accident, Ketelle said.

But Grayback president Mike Wheelock disputes this claim.

“The Forest Service policy doesn’t apply to us,” he said. “We didn’t know about it until after the accident.”

Grayback, which employs about 450 firefighters annually and has been in business since 1979, does have its own, less formal safety policy.

“We’re given a set time to get to a fire. We tell our people to be safe and pull over and get some rest,” Wheelock said.

The crews in the van driven by Megan Helm “did have some rest the night before, between 4.5 and 6.5 hours,” he said.

Grayback is also doing its own internal investigation of the accident.

Wheelock said he has taken the company’s 20 15-passenger vans out of service.

Studies by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration have found that 15-passenger vans are more prone to rollovers when fully loaded because they have a high center of gravity.

The accident, “has opened up the eyes of the whole fire industry,” Wheelock said.

“I’ve learned the first major cause of firefighters’ deaths is heart attacks, the second is accidents going to the fire and the third is the fire itself,” he said.

“We were the tops in the industry for our safety record,” Wheelock said. “We’ve driven tens of millions of miles on mountain roads” without accident, he said. “A straightaway in Colorado is the last place we expected to have one.”

No suits against Grayback have yet been filed by the families, Wheelock said.

Both Angie and Michael Zigich are unhappy with they way they say Grayback handled the families of the accident victims.

Survivor Robert Heins, who was sitting behind Zach, but came out of the crash with only minor injuries, didn’t get a plane ride home, Angie Zigich said.

“They made him ride the bus home. It took him two days,” she said.

She also faulted Grayback’s contribution of $14,000 to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation.

“$14,000, that’s $1,500 a kid,” she said. “Why didn’t they give that to the families?”

On the other hand, the Zigichs generally applaud how they were treated when they were in Glenwood Springs.

“The Rifle Funeral Home and Perry Bell were wonderful. Martha Ketelle went everywhere with us,” Angie Zigich said. “The Forest Service was wonderful. We’re not knocking them, but they should check who they use as contractors.”

At the very least, they said, the van drivers should have professional training.

Now, back home in Twin Falls, and after burying their only son this week, the couple is trying to put their lives back together.

“We’re doing the best we can, but there are so many whys we can’t answer right now,” she said.

For Michael, “the whole thing was like your worst nightmare.”

“We put $2,000 for eight people into the firefighter memorial fund,” Wheelock said, to cover travel and funeral expenses, a total of $16,000.

He said part of the Zigich’s frustration may have come from the fact that they were not contacted about their son’s death until two days after the accident.

“We called them several times, but they were out of town,” he said.

“They’re mad, and I don’t blame them for being mad. I’d be mad, too. If there is anything they need, they should let us know. They can call us at any time,” he said.

Even though Zach was employed by a temporary agency, Wheelock said he considered him an employee.

“We feel just as responsible as if he were our own,” he said.

Wheelock, who attended Zach’s funeral in Twin Falls last week, said he is devastated by the accident.

Echoing Michael Zigich, he said, “This has just been my worst nightmare.”


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