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MailTribune.com
  • Victims' families grieve

  • From Grants Pass to Ashland, tears were shed Thursday for six firefighters who are missing and presumed dead after a fiery helicopter crash in Northern California's Trinity Alps Wilderness.
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  • From Grants Pass to Ashland, tears were shed Thursday for six firefighters who are missing and presumed dead after a fiery helicopter crash in Northern California's Trinity Alps Wilderness.
    Families and relatives were slowly coming to terms with the notion that their loved ones likely won't be coming home from the rugged, remote mountains where they were fighting the Buckhorn fire.
    Several of the missing firefighters had been students at Southern Oregon University, and their instructors took the news hard.
    "They'll be dearly missed on the campus," said Dennis Dunleavy, a photojournalism professor who knew Scott Charlson, 25, of Phoenix, Edrik Gomez, 19, of Ashland, and David Steele, 19 of Ashland.
    "It's a huge hole in our community when you know these young people and you see so much promise and hope and then they're gone," Dunleavy said.
    Also missing and presumed lost are Bryan Rich, 29, who grew up in Gold Hill; Shawn Blazer, 30, of Medford; and Matthew Hammer, 23, of Grants Pass. A seventh firefighter's identity will be released when Grayback Forestry contacts family members.
    Firefighting has been an attractive summer job for college students because it provides a way to earn enough money to pay for tuition and other expenses, said D.L. Richardson, SOU communication chairman who knew Charlson and Steele.
    "We have many students across (academic) disciplines who do it," Richardson said.
    Charlson had an interest in journalism. He was the sports editor of the college newspaper and wrote sports stories for the Ashland Daily Tidings as recently as June.
    "He was dedicated to getting the truth and getting the quotes right," Richardson said.
    "He was a fun student to have in class," he said. "He challenged you. It was a great thing to have him in class. I enjoyed him as a young man and a student."
    Steele, a 2007 graduate of Ashland High School, had dreams of becoming an emergency medical technician and a firefighter for a city or county fire department, said his father, Paul Steele.
    "He set his sights on it, even in high school," the father said.
    Steele was attending Central Oregon Community College in Bend. "The only reason he was working for Grayback was to make money for college," the father said. "He knew the risks."
    Like many firefighters, the younger Steele enjoyed sports. "He was a varsity football player," Paul Steele said. "He loved rugby more than anything else."
    Edrik Gomez, a 2006 Coquille High School graduate, had been actively involved in SOU's multicultural programs.
    "He was a sweet young man full of promise and potential," Dunleavy said. "He was always laughing, always happy and joking. I never saw Edrik down, ever."
    Bryan Rich was "a reliable guy, fun to be around, who liked the outdoors," said Gabriel Chesley of Grants Pass.
    "From seventh grade all through high school, we were best friends," Chesley said. "We were inseparable."
    Chesley recalled that Rich set a school record at Hanby Junior High for most touchdowns (13) in a single season.
    "After high school his parents moved away, but he stayed in Southern Oregon because he liked the outdoors," Chesley said, especially motorcycles and four-wheeling.
    Chesley said Rich had worked in construction, and took a job as a firefighter when work in the building trades slumped.
    A reconnaissance team from the National Transportation Safety Board visited the crash site Thursday to determine how to remove any remains.
    Dunleavy said the loss was just beginning to sink in around the community.
    "I'm still in shock," he said. "I'm very, very sad for the families."
    Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail bkettler@mailtribune.com.
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