Van driver Helm faces charges
After making the long journey from La Grande, Ore., 21-year-old Megan Helm appeared stoic as she sat down in Garfield County Court in Rifle Wednesday to face six misdemeanor charges of careless driving.
The charges stem from a June 21 rollover accident on Interstate 70 that killed five firefighters and injured six others.
Helm entered a plea of innocent on July 16, but on Wednesday she waived her right to a speedy trial, giving both sides another six months to wrap up the case.
Helm, who has long, brownish-blonde hair, was neatly clad in a sky-blue sweater and black pants when she appeared in front of Garfield County Judge Steve Carter. Her family sat in the back of the courtroom, offering silent support for the young firefighter who has been through so much this summer.
Helm was working as a firefighter for La Grande, Ore.-based Grayback Forestry – a private firefighting firm – at the time of the crash. It happened just a mile east of Parachute, after the crew had stopped for snacks. The firefighters were headed east to help fight the Hayman Fire raging near Denver at the time.
During the hearing, Carter issued a restraining order allowing only those directly involved in the case to have access to the van Helm was driving.
The order was made so investigators could recover a black box in the van that recorded important technical information during the seconds prior to the deadly crash. If the van is moved, Helm’s Evergreen-based defense attorney John Hugger explained, that information could be erased.
Hugger said representatives of Ford Motor Co. took the van from Rifle, where it was stored immediately after the crash, to either Gunnison or Montrose, but have since brought it back to Rifle.
“If someone were to pull the van, it could record over the data, so we want to get that information as soon as possible,” Hugger said, adding that he is concerned that the information has already been lost.
Carter agreed, granting the request for a restraining order.
“I don’t think anyone else needs to be pawing all over this thing,” he said.
Similar to the device used in airplanes, the black box records the last 10 to 15 seconds of technical information such as speed and other information, which could help investigators determine the cause of an accident, Hugger said.
The type of van Helm was driving, a Ford F-350 15-passenger van, has gained notoriety in the past for its tendency to roll over.
In fact, just two months before the accident, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reissued a cautionary warning to users of 15-passenger vans because of an increased rollover risk under certain conditions. A similar warning was issued in 2001.
“NHTSA research has showed that 15-passenger vans have a rollover risk that is similar to other light trucks and vans when carrying a few passengers.
However, the risk of rollover increases dramatically as the number of occupants increases from fewer than five to more than 10,” the warning said.
“In fact, 15-passenger vans (with 10 or more occupants) had a rollover rate in single vehicle crashes that is nearly three times the rate of those that were lightly loaded. Because of these risks, it is important that 15-passenger vans be operated by experienced drivers,” the warning said.
Any hopes of a quick end to the regrettable case were dashed when 9th District deputy district attorney Jeff Cheney told Carter that prosecutors are still awaiting the results of a Forest Service investigation into the crash.
Many people from Helm’s home state, as well as some from Garfield County, have expressed anger and dismay that Helm is being charged for the accident. Others say Helm should be held responsible for the fatal crash.
District Attorney Mac Myers said the circumstances can’t be considered in the filing of charges, only at the time of sentencing.
Helm was given permission by Carter to appear via telephone for minor pretrial hearings, but if the case goes to trial or if she wishes to accept a plea agreement, Helm must appear in person.
“If anything happens of significance, you have to be here,” Carter said.
The prosecution agreed.
“We do agree it’s expensive to travel here from Oregon,” Cheney said.
Helm’s next hearing is scheduled for Oct. 23, but there was some talk about delaying a possible trial until next June, so witnesses who are now attending college will be out of school.
“That’s awfully long,” Carter said, indicating if there is a trial, it should be much sooner than that.
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