At age 51, Judy Haas is not your typical college student. But neither was her friend, Edrik Gomez
"He was this sacred, wonderful spirit," said Haas, who paid tribute with more than 100 other Southern Oregon University students to four friends who died in a helicopter crash while fighting fires in Northern California last week.
A public tribute will be held Friday morning for the seven firefighters, helicopter pilot and U.S. Forest Service employee who died on the Iron complex fire last week in Northern California.
The event will be from 10 to 11:30 a.m. at the Lithia Motors Amphitheater on the Jackson County Expo Center in Central Point.
Gates open at 8:30 a.m. The amphitheater is at 1 Peninger Road and is accessible from Exit 33 off Interstate 5.
The tribute is being organized by Grayback Forestry Inc. and Carson Helicopters Inc. with assistance from the interagency fire community.
Additionally, an information center has been established in Medford and will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. The number is 541-618-2171.
Anyone who wants to contribute to help the families of the victims, including the four who were injured, can contact the Wildland Firefighter Foundation at www.wffoundation.org. Contributions should include a reference to the Iron 44 Incident.
Additional information can be found on Grayback Forestry's Web site at www.graybackforestry.com.
Cards and letters can be sent to Grayback Forestry at: 1570 Avenue F, White City, OR 97503.
On a campus filled with young people, Haas said she was always aware that she's one of the oldest students, until she met the 19-year-old and he made it seem that age didn't matter.
"That's one of the things I loved about Edrik," she said
The gathering of students was at times tearful, joyful and humorous, prompting fond memories of Gomez, Scott Charlson, 25, David Steele, 19, and Steven "Caleb" Renno, 21. Dozens of SOU football players showed up to express their support for the families.
Altogether nine men died in the helicopter crash in a remote Northern California forest.
Duncan Emmons, an SOU student and firefighter, said he remembered that on his first night of firefighting this season his nose started bleeding because of the heat and altitude and Renno approached him.
"Out of his pack he pulls a piece of toilet paper and hands it to me — that's how we met," said the 23-year-old.
He said he got to know the young men on the fire lines, but knew Renno in particular because they both shared an interest in anthropology. "We lost a good scholar there," said Emmons.
Emmons said he and the other SOU students shared an interest in firefighting, but also were trying to work their way through school.
"They paid the ultimate price for tuition," he said. "They didn't get paid enough for this."
Blake Helmken told his fellow students that they could honor the memory of Gomez by remembering and sharing his optimistic spirit.
"I'm going to smile and brighten up everyone's day," said Helmken. "He was the happiest guy I knew."
Helmken, 20, said he worked on events in Stevenson Union and would often bump into Gomez. "He'd just show up and he made me laugh," he said.
While Gomez had a happy-go-lucky nature, his friends described him as interested in politics, literature and philosophy.
"He was always on the ball — a real intelligent guy," said Helmken.
Earlier Monday, 200 Grayback Forestry Inc. firefighters gathered at company headquarters in White City to discuss their fallen comrades.
On the day of the tragedy, Nick Jacobsen remembered, he had been flown to the fire line on the same helicopter that later crashed.
He said he had a feeling of exhilaration as the helicopter whisked him toward the Buckhorn fire in the Iron complex fire.
"It was just a happy day," said Jacobsen, a Jackson County resident who is married and has two young girls.
The helicopter brought him safely to his destination. "I didn't see anything wrong," he said.
Later, as he approached the fire line, he heard on the radio that the helicopter had crashed after it had picked up another crew.
Jacobsen said the Grayback firefighters are a close-knit group and the loss has been hard to bear. Many of the Grayback firefighters have taken time off to grieve for their friends.
"I held it in until I got home and saw my family," said Jacobsen, who fought back tears as he described the feeling. He said he wasn't sure when he and others would return to work.
"At this point, I'm not anxious to do it," he said, later adding that he would be ready to go again soon.
Vicki Minor, executive director of the Wildland Firefighters Foundation, said it will take the crews time to recover from their loss.
"As you can well understand, the firefighters are traumatized," she said. "It's like the wildland community's 9-11."
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or email@example.com.