Families of firefighters reportedly settle suits over crash

PORTLAND — The families of seven firefighters killed and three injured in the crash of a firefighting helicopter in Northern California in 2008 have reached a tentative settlement in various lawsuits.

The Oregonian newspaper reported Friday the proposed settlements in the Aug. 5, 2008, crash of the Sikorsky S-61 helicopter in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest resulted from mediation this week by 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Edward Levy.

A lawyer for four victims said the amount of the settlements with Carson Helicopters, Columbia Helicopters and the U.S. Forest Service were still being finalized. No settlements have been reached with Sikorsky, the maker of the helicopter, or General Electric, which built the engines.

At least two lawsuits had sought $10 million for each victim.

The crash was considered the deadliest of its kind in U.S. history, killing nine men, including seven contract firefighters with Grayback Forestry of Merlin.

Attorney Robert Hopkins, who represents four of the families, told The Oregonian he could not disclose how much money the plaintiffs would receive until all parties agreed.

At least two of the original lawsuits had sought $10 million for each victim.

Hopkins said the tentative agreements were reached with Carson Helicopters, Columbia Helicopters and the U.S. Forest Service.

The helicopter crashed while lifting off a hillside in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. A preliminary report by the National Transportation Safety Board determined the helicopter lost power to its main rotor as it took off.

Killed in the crash were pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine; 63-year-old Jim Ramage, of Redding; Shawn Blazer, 30, of Medford; Scott Charlson, 25, of Phoenix; Matthew Hammer, 23, of Grants Pass; Edrik Gomez, 19, of Ashland; Bryan Rich, 29, of Medford; David Steele, 19, of Ashland; and Steven "Caleb" Renno, 21, of Cave Junction.

Injured were William Coultas, now 45, of Cave Junction; Richard Schroeder Jr., 44, of Medford; Jonathan Frohreich of Medford, 19, and Michael Brown, 22, of Rogue River.

Hopkins told The Oregonian the families of Schwanenberg, the pilot who died, and Ramage, a Forest Service employee, as well as surviving pilot William Coultas, did not reach settlements with any of the five defendants.

The crash occurred while firefighters were battling an 83,000-acre wildfire. Wisnesses said the copter had diffioulty gaining altitude and crashed after climbing only 40 or 50 feet.

After the crash, the helicopter quickly filled with heavy smoke. The four survivors escapes before the helicopter was consumed by fire.

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