Remembering a tragic crash
GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colo. Dr. Michael Zigich says it’s true what he was taught in medical school, about no death being harder to take than that of a son or daughter.The Idaho anesthesiologist and his wife Angie learned that painful truth after his son Zachary, 19, died five years ago Thursday along with four other wildland firefighters in a van accident on eastbound Interstate 70 near Parachute.”It is the most devastating thing. It’s something we live with every day. It’s five years out, and our son’s room is still the way that it was left,” Zigich said.Those killed as a result of the accident included Zachary Zigich; Retha Shirley, 19, of Oregon; Daniel Rama, 28, of Oregon; Jake Martindale, 20, of Idaho; and Bartholomew Bailey, 20, of Oregon.Several other passengers were injured in the accident, which occurred while the firefighters were headed to fight the giant Hayman Fire near Denver. The accident happened near where three firefighters died fighting a wildfire in the Battlement Mesa area in 1976, and in the same county where 14 firefighters were killed during the Storm King Fire near Glenwood Springs in 1994.To this day the van accident produces deeply differing emotions among those it left behind.The Zigiches remain resentful toward the van’s driver, Megan Helm, who survived; the firefighter’s private employer, Grayback Forestry of Oregon; and other parties connected to the crash.
“Basically they all walked away with virtually no punishment. I don’t think they have a realization of what a horrible thing they did,” Michael Zigich said.By contrast, Rama’s father, David, said Grayback had treated his son well, and he believes Helm was a “victim of circumstances” for having been at the wheel of a Ford 15-passenger van when the accident occurred.
Ford long has been the target of lawsuits and federal scrutiny because the vans are said to be prone to tipping when fully loaded with passengers. Families of those killed or hurt in the Parachute crash sued Ford. Both Zigich and Rama said the parties reached an out-of-court settlement a year or two ago, but they aren’t allowed to reveal the financial terms. Ford could not be reached for comment but has argued in the past that its vans are safe.To Zigich, any danger created by the van doesn’t excuse Helm’s actions. The firefighters had stopped in Parachute for a snack before the accident. He said the accident report indicates the van wrecked as Helm was trying to eat an ice cream treat that required use of both hands.”To me it’s just like how could you be so careless, eating and trying to drive?” he said.Prosecutors struggled over whether to charge Helm due to families’ varying views about her guilt or innocence. She ended up being sentenced to 60 hours of community service and a $200 fine for careless driving.Helm was 21 at the time of the accident and lived in Oregon. Today, she is working as a beautician on a cruise ship overseas, said Rama, whose daughter is a longtime friend of Helm’s. Rama said Helm found it too difficult to go back to firefighting after the accident.”Over the years she’s conducted herself with great class and dignity during very trying circumstances. … She’s a cool kid,” he said.
Zigich said he’s also bothered that Terry Barton, the former Forest Service employee who started the Hayman Fire, never was charged in connection with the van accident. “She really was responsible for these five people being killed,” he said.After the accident, Denver defense attorney and legal analyst Scott Robinson had said it would have been difficult to prosecute Barton in the deaths. She currently is serving time for arson.’Zigich said the Forest Service did “sort of an investigation” into the accident but the result was a whitewash saying the agency bore no blame. Grayback never was penalized or had its Forest Service contract changed after the accident, he said.Grayback and Forest Service officials could not be reached for comment. Rama said Grayback stopped using the 15-passenger vans after the accident and has warned other contractors against using them.Zigich doesn’t think the accident victims’ families accomplished anything in terms of boosting public awareness about the vans. But Rama said families have talked to firefighting contractors, churches and other groups that use the vans, and some got rid of them or modified them to improve their stability. In some cases van users simply removed a seat so the vehicles would hold fewer passengers and be less top-heavy.Helm talked about the van’s dangers as part of her community service, even putting out bumper stickers “about how friends don’t let friends drive and ride in 15-passenger vans,” Rama said.Zigich said it’s important for anyone in the vans to wear a seat belt, “because they are killers.”Some families continue to maintain crosses and other items that mark the site where the firefighters died. Rama said he’s never felt a need to see the site.”It wasn’t going to do anything to bring Dan back,” he said.
Instead, he’ll mark Thursday’s anniversary by remembering Dan at home and going to a meeting for families who have lost children through various means.Zigich said he may visit the accident site during next year’s anniversary date.”It’s a hard day, it really is. I hate June 21. It’s just a hard day for me and my wife,” he said.Contact Dennis Webb: firstname.lastname@example.orgPost Independent, Glenwood Springs Colorado CO
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