Grayback president appreciates local response to tragedy | PostIndependent.com
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Grayback president appreciates local response to tragedy

Michael Wheelock

On June 21, I got the call that one of Grayback’s vans had rolled on Interstate 70 near Parachute, killing four of my firefighters. Another, Bartholomew Bailey, would die on Monday, June 24. I was stunned. After 23 years and millions of miles of driving with no major accidents, the unimaginable had happened. Retha Shirley, Zachary Zigich, Bartholomew Bailey, Daniel Rama and Jacob Martindale were gone.

On that day and for several days after the accident, you came to us as a community of help and support, so I want to share with you my gratitude for what you did and tell you some of what happened in those days and after we made the sad journey home with our fallen firefighters.

A company that has one of the highest safety ratings in the industry had lost five wonderful people in the blink of an eye. The days following were a blur of trying to find families, making arrangements to fly the fallen firefighters home and getting all crews back safely. (There was apparently a misunderstanding about how firefighter Robert Hines got home – that he had had to ride the bus for two days. Actually, he flew home with the rest of the crew on June 22.)

We immediately shut down operations to help employees deal with the emotional trauma, to review safety policies and begin our own investigation. We have sidelined the vans until the numerous investigations can be completed.

It was a devastating loss for so many people: their families and friends, their communities, all of us at Grayback Forestry, and the firefighting community. Your assistance and kindness during this nightmare helped more than you will ever know. You are heroes to all of us.

Media coverage has been heavy. I did an interview with Post Independent reporter Donna Daniels about the Zigich family. I appreciated Ms. Daniels’ offer to let me respond to and clarify some of the questions that were raised in her interview with them.

First I want to say that my heart goes out to Michael and Angie Zigich and their family. They lost their son and there is nothing I would like to do more than change that. We provided family contact information to the authorities who had to do the official notification. Unfortunately Michael and Angie were both out of town and it took some time to notify them both. I attended Zachary’s and Jacob Martindale’s funerals in Idaho while my wife Angie attended services for Retha, Daniel and Bartholomew in Oregon.

Helping families cover expenses has been a priority. Grayback Forestry set up a special, tax-free, $16,000 fund through the Wildland Firefighters Foundation (WLFF). Those monies now have been disbursed to the eight families of the fallen and injured firefighters. There is also an additional up-to-$5,000 for each family available from the WLFF. Idaho and Colorado Workers’ Compensation each have provisions to cover funeral and other related costs incurred by the victims’ families.

There were so many of you in the communities of Glenwood Springs, Rifle, Parachute and Grand Junction who reached out to our crews after the accident.

Thanks to the woman who saved lives by stopping immediately and calling 911 on her cell phone. Thanks to the Colorado State Patrol, Rifle and Parachute police, fire and EMS personnel who all responded to the scene so fast. I thank the folks at the Red River Inn in Rifle who provided free rooms and the Fireside Restaurant in Rifle who fed the rest of the convoy at no charge. I even heard that Rifle’s Volunteer Fire Department put on a spread for the crews before they checked into the hotel.

Thanks to the doctors and nurses at Clagett Memorial, Valley View and St. Mary’s hospitals who treated the injured, and to the mental health professionals there who helped them through the emotional trauma.

Thanks to the Rifle and Farnum-Holt funeral homes, which helped the families of the fallen firefighters with arrangements, and to the Forest Service people who helped us in every way imaginable and enabled me to charter one of their planes to bring our fallen firefighters home. And heartfelt thanks to all of you I have missed.

Grayback crews are going back to work now and back to the fires. But we will never forget what happened in Colorado and the way that you stepped up and reached out to us and ours.

Michael Wheelock is president of Grayback Forestry, Inc., in LaGrande, Ore.


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