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MailTribune.com
  • 'It was pretty scary ...'

    Firefighter recalls harrowing ride in helicopter before it crashed in Northern California
  • ROGUE RIVER — One of the four men to survive the deadliest firefighting air disaster in U.S. history says he doesn't remember how he got out of the helicopter that crashed on a California hillside and burst into flames last month.
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  • ROGUE RIVER — One of the four men to survive the deadliest firefighting air disaster in U.S. history says he doesn't remember how he got out of the helicopter that crashed on a California hillside and burst into flames last month.
    Michael Brown, 20, suffered two broken cheekbones, a broken nose, a dislocated jaw and a concussion in the Aug. 5 crash that killed nine of the 13 people on board.
    In an interview at his mother's Rogue River home, Brown said he remembered most of what happened before and after the impact. What happened in the middle "all happened so fast."
    Brown said he and other firefighters from Grayback Forestry Inc. had spent 12 hours digging fire lines and dousing hot spots in Northern California's Iron Alps Complex wildfire. Now that the shift was over, they were a short helicopter ride away from a camp where they would eat and sleep.
    Waiting with nine other firefighters, Brown watched as the contract helicopter ferried two other groups to the camp.
    Ten more firefighters were still waiting on the ground for their turn when Brown's group climbed aboard. Sitting in the first row behind the pilots, Brown took the middle seat.
    As the helicopter lifted off, it felt "sluggish," he recalled. Then, Brown heard a thump and watched as the helicopter's main rotor smashed into tree limbs and splintered.
    "All these alarms started going off," Brown said. "I remember the 'beep beep beep' and then I heard the pilot shouting 'Mayday! Mayday! Helicopter going down!' into his headset."
    William Coultas, a co-pilot who survived, shouted at the men to put their heads between their knees.
    "It was pretty scary — it all happened so fast," Brown said. "The helicopter was leaning to the left. Then I remember hitting the ground really hard."
    Brown was found 200 yards from the burning wreckage. He doesn't know how he got there.
    Brown is now recuperating at his mother's house, cashing his workers' compensation checks to make ends meet. He has trouble sleeping, but says he will return to fight fires next season. His thoughts are with the men who died in the crash — a pilot, a U.S. Forest Service official and seven firefighters.
    "I lost seven guys who were really close to me," Brown said. "I do my best to remember them the way they were."
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