Mother of Eugene firefighter killed in 2008 crash calls for change

EUGENE, Ore. - When a wildland firefighting company showed up at lacrosse practice looking for employees, Scott Charlson signed up.

The Eugene-area high school graduate and Southern Oregon University student agreed to toil all summer long in the dust and the heat to earn money to help pay for his education.

Charlson aspired to be a sports journalist.

On Tuesday, Aug. 5, 2008, he and his fellow firefighters with Grayback Forestry were working near the front lines of the Iron Complex forest fire burning in northern California's Trinity Alps.

Fire bosses had decided to pull crews off the front lines for safety's sake.

So 10 firefighters from Oregon trundled on board the Sikorsky helicopter to get a lift back to the fire camp with the pilot, co-pilot and a Forest Service employee.

"They started to lift off, but it was too heavy," Scott's mother Nina Charlson said, "and it just crashed right at the site and burned."

The tragedy has come to be known as Iron 44, the deadliest helicopter crash involving working firefighters in U.S. history.

Besides 25-year-old Charlson and pilot Roark Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine, Ore., the crash claimed the lives of Jim Ramage, 63, a U.S. Forest Service inspector pilot from Redding, Calif.; and firefighters Shawn Blazer, 30, of Medford; 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.

The National Transportation Safety Board later determined the helicopter crashed because it was 3,000 pounds over it's weight limit.

Now two men with Carson Helicopters, which owned the helicopter, are facing fraud charges for altering the weight and lift charts.

"I've had to deal with a lot of anger," Nina said, "and also at the same time it makes you try to do things that make sure that it won't happen again."

The Charlsons, with the help of Sen. Jeff Merkley, want to see a change in policy on who qualifies for the public safety officer benefit to include private contractors hired by the government to fight fires.

"If they were killed in the line of duty, the person standing right next to them, if they are a government employee, they would get public safety officer benefits but the private contractor does not."

The public safety officer benefit is a one-time payment to the family of a fallen firefighter that is currently only given to u-s government employees.

Since 2002 the number of private contractors used to protect the public from wildland fires has gone up, and Nina doesn't want another family to have to go through the same struggles her family has.

"I think until something really shakes your world, you just think it happens to other people," she said, "and it doesn't always happen to someone else."