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Van driver Helm sentenced

RIFLE – Oregon firefighter Megan Helm was ordered Wednesday to pay a $200 fine and fulfill 60 hours of community service for careless driving in a van rollover accident last summer that killed five fellow firefighters.

“I just wanted to say I’m very sorry for my role in the accident. I’ll never be able to take it back,” Helm, 21, of La Grande, Ore., said during her sentencing hearing in Garfield County Court.

“If I knew then what I know now, I would have never driven that van for 20 hours without taking an eight-hour break,” she said.



The sentencing hearing was marked by the words of the parents of Zachary Zigich as they confronted Helm.

“I had to come today to see the person who killed my son,” Angie Zigich of Twin Falls, Idaho, said from a podium in the Garfield County Court Rifle courtroom.



Helm, her family and several supporters immediately began crying.

“I brought pictures so you can see what you took from us,” Zigich added.

Helm, then a firefighter for Grayback Forestry of LaGrande, Ore., was driving a Ford E-350 15-passenger van east on Interstate 70 on June 21, 2002. She and 10 firefighter passengers were enroute to the Hayman Fire near Denver.

After making a stop for snacks in Parachute, Helm momentarily looked away from the road and lost control of the van, according to the Colorado State Patrol. The van rolled twice, ejecting many of the passengers, killing five and seriously injuring two others.

Although the families of the other four men killed in the crash have forgiven Helm and have begun to focus their anger at Ford Motor Co. for building what they call a rollover-prone van, Angie and Michael Zigich still blame Helm for the death of their son, Zachary, 18.

“That’s my son . who’s buried six feet under,” Angie Zigich said to Helm, holding a picture of the accident scene above her head as she stood near the judge’s bench.

Garfield County Judge Stephen Carter explained several times to Zigich that the purpose of the hearing was not to taunt the defendant, but to provide evidence to determine her sentence.

“I want Megan to see these pictures,” she said. Turning to Helm, she said, “I want to look at you in the eye, the woman who killed my son.”

She also warned Helm not to “let anyone tell you you’re a victim or let them delude you into thinking you’re a victim.”

Michael Zigich also spoke to the court and to Helm until Helm’s attorney, John Hugger of Evergreen, objected to the personal attacks.

The remainder of the witnesses were Helm’s friends and family speaking in her behalf.

“Dr. and Mrs. Zigich, you painted a really ugly picture of her, so I’d like to paint a better one,” said Meagan Rama, Helm’s best friend. “If we knew what was going to happen today, we’d have had a whole busload of people to refute what you hatefully said to her.”

To Judge Carter, Rama said, “She’s a very beautiful person. For anyone to say that this is her fault and she did this intentionally, I couldn’t even imagine.”

Gil Helm characterized his daughter as a loving, hard-working person who has a “can-do” personality.

Some of the injured firefighters and victims’ families were initially critical of Helm, while others objected to charging her. Criticism has shifted away from Helm to the 15-passenger Ford van she was driving.

Hugger said while Helm took her eyes off the road, she would have been able to safely steer back onto the highway if she had been driving a safer vehicle.

“When they’re used for the purpose they’re intended for, they’re unfit for that purpose,” he said. As more passengers load into Ford’s 15-passenger van, it becomes more top-heavy and more prone to roll over.

Also, because the vans have a short wheelbase compared to the vehicle’s length, several seats are behind the back axle.

“It’s like pulling a trailer without knowing it,” Hugger said of the 15-passenger vans’ performance.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has reported that rollover rates of stretch vans manufactured by Ford, Chevrolet, GMC and Dodge are three times those of regular vans when carrying 10 or more passengers.

Deputy district attorney Jeff Cheney, prosecutor in the case, said it would have been impossible to prove Helm caused anyone’s death.

Hugger played a videotape of a 60 Minutes 2 program about 15-passenger vans. According to the video, produced before Helm’s accident, 424 people were killed by 15-passenger van rollovers since 1990.

He said two federal transportation agencies have written warnings about 15-passenger vans, yet another federal agency, the U.S. Forest Service, “fills them up.”

“I’d like to see Ford, a true icon of American industry, do what’s right for the people and stop making these vans.”

Families of a least three of the dead firefighters and two of the injured firefighters have sued Ford Motor Co., alleging the van was defectively dangerous and the company failed to warn consumers about known problems.

Ford spokeswoman Kathleen Vokes defended the van. “Regarding concerns about the safety of the 15-passenger Econoline passenger wagon, we remain confident that this is a very safe vehicle,” she said.

After the hearing, Angie Zigich was still visibly upset and said she was not satisfied with the punishment.

“That’s $40 per body,” Angie Zigich said. “Kids in a dorm get more of a fine for drinking. That’s $40 for my son.”

Dr. Michael Zigich said while they blame Helm for their son’s death, they also feel the vans are dangerous and that private firefighting companies like Grayback Forestry should be held to meet higher safety standards. He urged other parents to think twice before letting their kids work for such companies.

As Helm left the courthouse with her family surrounding her, she made a brief statement.

“I’m going to use my community service to heighten awareness of the 15-passenger vans,” she said.

As for the Zigichs and the other victims and their families, she said she is, “sorry for all that they’re going through.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Contact Greg Masse: 945-8515, ext. 511

gmasse@postindependent.com


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