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MailTribune.com
  • Families come to grips with stages of grief

  • If Jim Rich had endured Hurricane Katrina and all he owned had been wiped out, the emotional devastation would be insignificant compared to the loss of his son.
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  • If Jim Rich had endured Hurricane Katrina and all he owned had been wiped out, the emotional devastation would be insignificant compared to the loss of his son.
    "The grief doesn't even come close," said the 59-year-old father, a former Gold Hill resident who now lives in Phoenix, Ariz.
    His son, Bryan Rich of Medford, died Aug. 5 along with six other firefighters, a Forest Service employee and the pilot when their helicopter crashed in a remote area of Northern California.
    Friday's memorial service at the Jackson County Expo helped give families and friends some meaning to their tragedy, they said.
    "That was incredible," Jim Rich said. "They really paid honor and tribute to the firefighters. It was an incredible outpouring."
    Rich said the support he's received from the firefighters' employer, Grayback Forestry Inc., and others has been comforting.
    "They are a wonderful bunch of people," he said. "The wildland firefighters have been outstanding."
    Some families are working through their grief; others are just starting to come to grips with the tragedy of losing a loved one.
    "There are some very broken families," said Nina Charlson, mother of Scott Charlson, who perished in the crash.
    The 58-year-old Eugene resident said the memorial service gave her a better idea of her son's work. "I saw just how awesome the firefighters are," she said.
    Her family also has been sustained by their Christian beliefs and the support of the Willamette Christian Center, where she works.
    "There are some like us well along in grieving," said father Rick Charlson. "Then there are others that have just begun."
    The Charlsons, who attended the memorial with their 20-year-old son Jake, said the service will help families appreciate the sacrifice these firefighters made.
    "I hate to say it, but he laid down his life," said Rick Charlson, 62. "I'm so proud of him."
    He was particularly moved by accounts of the duties of firefighters told by Tom Harbour, director of Fire and Aviation Management of the U.S. Forest Service.
    Scott Charlson, who lived in Medford, started working on fires just six or seven weeks ago to help pay his way through Southern Oregon University. He hoped to become a sports journalist. "He's $45,000 to $50,000 in debt," said Rick Charlson.
    An employee of Eugene City Parks, Charlson said he was unable to help his son financially, but Scott was more than willing to pay his own way.
    The Charlsons said they want to do everything they can to reach out to other families that have lost a son.
    "It was all grief for all of us," said Charlson, remembering back to the first days after the tragedy. "Now it's centered on others and their grief."
    He said he remembers times when he didn't reach out to others in the past, but now understands how important it is to connect with others.
    The Charlson family had no idea of the dangers Scott would face. But Jim Rich said he remembers telling his son to stay away from firefighting.
    "All you do is just breathe smoke, gag, and puke," he said.
    Jim worked with fire crews on the Oregon Coast in the 1980s so he was familiar with the dangers of firefighting.
    But his son, a wrestler, journeyman carpenter and outdoor enthusiast, was strong, so his father knew he could handle the rigors.
    Rich said it is hard to describe the feelings his family has gone through over the past two weeks.
    When he heard the initial reports of the helicopter crash at work, he remembers having a bad feeling.
    He called Bryan and left a message on his cell phone, then the phone rang and it was Bryan's childhood sweetheart and fiancee, Katie O'Connell.
    "Katie called and she was just incoherent," he remembered. When Bryan's mother, Donna Rich, got the bad news, Jim said, "My wife totally lost it with grief and denial."
    Bryan would have turned 30 next month, he said.
    Medford resident Jason Kinney said of Bryan, "We were good friends for a long time. He was always there when I needed him."
    They both enjoyed fishing the Rogue and hanging out together.
    Kinney said he had been able to control his emotions until he attended the memorial and saw the tribute to his fallen friend and the outpouring of support.
    "I was all right until today," he said.
    Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com.
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