By Paul Fattig
Family members of firefighters who died in one of the worst helicopter crashes in U.S. history had strong words for two former Carson Helicopter Inc. employees accused of falsifying weight and performance records on the aircraft.
“We were told this crash was preventable and predictable on many levels, and sadly we have found that to be true,” Nina Charlson, a mother of one of the victims, wrote in an email to the Mail Tribune.
“Initially when I was told about the crash — foul play was not what came to my mind. Accidents happen. But this was no accident and it complicates the grief we are experiencing.”
Former Carson Vice President Steven Metheny, 42, of Central Point, and maintenance director Levi Phillips, 45, of Grants Pass, were indicted by a federal grand jury in Medford on charges the two conspired to defraud the U.S. Forest Service by falsifying information about the weight, balance and performance of firefighting helicopters — including the one that crashed in August 2008 in Northern California, killing nine.
Charlson’s son Scott Charlson, 25, of Phoenix, was among the seven firefighters from Jackson and Josephine counties who died in the crash. The command pilot and a Forest Service employee also died.
The co-pilot and three firefighters were injured. All of the firefighters were employed by Grayback Forestry Inc. of Merlin.
Metheny also was charged with 22 counts of mail and wire fraud, making false statements to the Forest Service, endangering the safety of aircraft in flight, and theft from an interstate shipment.
If convicted on the conspiracy charge, the men face a maximum of 20 years in prison. Metheny could potentially receive decades more on the other charges. Neither could be reached for comment.
In Cave Junction, Catherine Renno, whose firefighting son Steven “Caleb” Renno, 21, of Cave Junction, was killed in the crash, said the indictments bring mixed emotions.
“I’ll wake up tomorrow whether they are in jail — my son will still be dead,” she said.
Both mothers expressed appreciation for the investigations into the crash by the U.S. Department of Justice and the National Transportation Safety Board.
“I am very thankful the criminal investigation was pursued,” wrote Charlson, a Eugene resident. “While it does not bring our loved ones back or change the heartache and emotional torture surviving firefighters and families have had to endure the past 4½ years, it does confirm some of the things we have been told since the crash.”
“I know dozens of people have spent many years trying to get to the truth and justice of this,” Renno said. “At the same time, I’m a bit disappointed that greater charges weren’t made.
“When you have a son that dies, and you find out people were culpable … that’s very difficult,” she added. “I know Metheny and the other fellow didn’t falsify documents to kill someone. But that was the result.”
Renno believes that others in the helicopter firm were culpable.
“I know the prosecutor’s office brought the biggest charges they could,” she said. “Yet another part of me faults the lack of FAA oversight and the culture within Carson that puts profits above safety. My greatest concern is the upper people responsible aren’t being charged.”
Ashland resident Paul Steele, whose son David Steele, 19, was one of the firefighters killed in the crash, also had hoped for more substantial charges.
“I’m glad they’re stopped; what I’m not glad about is that my son died to make this become apparent,” Paul Steele told The Associated Press.
“I think it falls a little short,” he said. “If you were to drive a car recklessly and kill someone, you’d have a manslaughter charge. You endanger the safety of an aircraft — you knowingly did so, you recklessly did so and people died — and they’re not facing manslaughter charges.”
The 25-page indictment concluded that between March and October 2008, Metheny and Phillips submitted bid proposals on behalf of Carson Helicopters that contained information the two knew was false in order to obtain multimillion-dollar contracts. The pilots were unaware of the false statements, according to the indictments.
The Sikorsky S-61N helicopter weighed more than 19,000 pounds when pilots tried to take off from a mountaintop clearing during the Iron 44 wildfire in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, far exceeding the 15,840-pound limit required by the Forest Service, according to the NTSB investigation.
The aircraft clipped a tree, smashing and bursting into flames, becoming the deadliest firefighting air disaster in U.S. history.
Carson Helicopters recently closed its operation in Merlin to consolidate its operations in Pennsylvania. Metheny was terminated from the firm in 2009. Phillips was suspended Monday when it was learned he had been indicted, the firm said in a statement.
Those found guilty for contributing to the cause of the crash should be made to sit before each family who lost a loved one and listen to how the crash devastated that family, Nina Charlson wrote in her email. They should also sit before those who were injured as well as the entire firefighter brotherhood, she added.
“Nothing that takes place in the future can bring our loved ones back to us or stop the emotional torment that is present in so many minds at this very moment because of the criminal acts these two men (allegedly) committed over and over again — even after the crash,” she wrote. “No remorse. It was all about them, their greed and their life.”
Reach reporter Paul Fattig at 541-776-4496 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This story originally appeared in Medford Mail Tribune.