As many as eight firefighters and a pilot are presumed dead after a helicopter crashed just after picking up workers battling a blaze in a Northern California forest, officials said.
The helicopter had lifted off from a clearing in a remote, rugged region of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, said Jennifer Rabuck, spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service.
The aircraft was carrying 11 firefighters and two crew members when it went down Tuesday night in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, according to the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board.
Four people - three firefighters and pilot - were flown to hospitals with severe burns, according to the Forest Service.
The Sikorsky S-61N chopper was destroyed by fire after crashing "under unknown circumstances," said FAA spokesman Ian Gregor. The NTSB, which is leading the investigation, was headed to the scene, about 215 miles (345 kilometers) northwest of Sacramento, while the Trinity County Sheriff's Department was leading the search for crash victims.
Firefighters who were waiting to be picked up helped rescue the injured after the helicopter crashed around 7:45 p.m. and caught fire, Rabuck said. About three dozen firefighters had to spend the night on the mountain because it became too dark for other helicopters to land, she said.
Nine people were still missing in the wreckage and presumed killed. Recovery efforts have been complicated by the remote location and the ongoing wildfire in the forest, Rabuck said.
"It's difficult to access," she said. "It's very remote, very steep and heavily forested."
The firefighters had been working at the northern end of a fire burning on more than 27 square miles (70 sq. kilometers) in the national forest, part of a larger complex of blazes that is mostly contained.
"We are praying for the swift recovery of all the victims, and our hearts go out to their loved ones," Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger said Wednesday.
Ten of the firefighters, including the three in the hospital, were employed by firefighting contractor Grayback Forestry, according to Kelli Matthews, a spokesman for the Merlin, Oregon-based company. Grayback's tally showed that seven of its employees were unaccounted for late Wednesday, and the company does not know whether any firefighters from other companies or government agencies also were on board, Matthews said.
She said the company was notifying families of the missing firefighters and fielding calls from anxious relatives asking whether their family members were among the injured or dead.
Mike Wheelock, Grayback's founder and owner, said the company had two 20-person crews working the fire, a mix of young seasonal firefighters and professionals.
"We are just right now concentrating on all the families and our employees," Wheelock said while visiting the University of California, Davis Medical Center in Sacramento, where two of his employees were being treated. "We are very concerned about them because we are very tight-knit."
Grayback firefighters Michael Brown, 20, and Jonathan Frohreich, 18, as well as one of the two pilots, were being treated at the UC Davis hospital, according to the contractor. Brown was upgraded to fair condition late Wednesday and Frohreich remained in critical condition, according to the hospital and fire officials.
A spokesman said the hospital was also treating a victim in critical condition named William Coultas but could not confirm whether the patient was the co-pilot.
Leora Frohreich, Jonathan Frohreich's grandmother, said that it was the young man's first work as a wildland firefighter and that he planned to attend mechanic school this fall.
He had worked on a fire near Williams, Oregon, for three weeks and then was on the Shasta-Trinity fire for four days, the grandmother said. His crew was being flown out for some rest when the helicopter crashed, she said.
"I'm so thankful because he's just lucky to be alive," Frohreich said, adding that the firefighter's parents, sister and girlfriend had gone to Sacramento to be with him. "You can't be in a crash like that and not hurt."
Another Grayback employee, identified as Richard Schroeder, 42, was in serious condition at Mercy Medical Center in Redding, officials said.
The helicopter was owned and operated by Carson Helicopters Inc., a Pennsylvania company whose firefighting operations are based in Grants Pass, Oregon. All 12 of the company's helicopters are being used for firefighting in Oregon and California, said Bob Madden, Carson's director of corporate affairs.
The helicopter's two co-pilots were Carson employees, Madden said; one was hospitalized and the other was among the missing.
The Forest Service and the sheriff's department would not disclose Wednesday whether they had recovered any bodies from the crash site or what the search effort entailed.
Before Tuesday's helicopter crash, three firefighters had been killed while on duty in California this year, including one firefighter also assigned to battle the Shasta-Trinity blazes who was killed last month by a falling tree.
On July 2, a volunteer firefighter in Mendocino County died of a heart attack on the fire line. Another firefighter was killed July 26 in when he was burned while scouting a fire.