Air tanker fighting wildfire crashes

Tuesday, June 18, 2002

WALKER, Calif. -- An air tanker fighting a blaze near Yosemite National Park caught fire Monday and crashed in this Northern California resort town, killing all three crew members and just missing a mechanic's shop, authorities and witnesses said.

A Reno, Nev., television station captured the scene on videotape as the wings broke off the C-130 transport plane. The fiery fuselage then rolled left and spiraled nose first into the ground and exploded in a ball of flame.

All three crew members were killed in the crash "under unknown circumstances after making a drop" of retardant, said Jerry Johnston, operations officer with the Federal Aviation Administration in Hawthorne, Calif.

"It was destroyed by impact and by fire," he said. Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board were on the way to the scene.

No one on the ground was thought to have been hurt in the plane crash, said Paddy Hardy, a Forest Service spokeswoman at the Sierra Front Interagency Dispatch Center in Minden, Nev.

But a firefighter in a water tanker truck responding to the fire was injured and airlifted from the scene when the truck overturned on a road east of Walker. There was no immediate word on his condition, she said. Witnesses said the plane crashed in a field just east of U.S. Highway 395 within 150 feet of an auto shop shortly before 3 p.m.

"I'm standing here looking at the tail section," shop owner Mike Mandichaka told The Associated Press by telephone. "My shop is right next door. It almost hit it."

8,000-acre fire

The tanker was battling an 8,000-acre blaze that had forced 400 people out of their homes in Walker, which is 90 miles south of Reno, and about 25 miles north of Yosemite. At least one home has burned.

Other aircraft battling the fire were grounded.

Reno station KOLO-TV's news crew was interviewing a man watching the skies with his own camcorder near Walker Sporting Goods Mobile Home Park when the plane came into view.

The plane came in low to the ground trailing a red flow of fire retardant above tall green pines.

Both wings suddenly snapped off, with flashes of flame as they separated.

"We saw it circle around once and then drop through the middle there. ... That's where we saw it break up," reporter Terri Russell said.

The fire from the crash threatened about 10 structures in the immediate area, including homes, trailers and the mechanic's shop.

But the crash scene fire was brought under control and posing no danger itself Monday night.

The wildfire began Saturday in a remote section of the Humbolt-Toiyabe National Forest that the Marines use for survival training.

Unexploded ordnance in the steep, rugged area was slowing containment efforts, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho.

The agency said the fire was "human" caused but had no other details.

It was 10 percent contained Monday evening -- up from 7 percent earlier in the day -- and was being fought by some 671 firefighters.

The fire was estimated to have burned about 6,500 acres at noon Monday, but had nearly doubled in size by Monday night.

"The winds came up and it is now over 10,000 acres and the winds are still blowing," Hardy said.

Fire officials originally estimated the fire would be fully contained by Thursday night but were considering pushing back that projection, she said.

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