BIG FLATS, N.Y. --The investigation into the crash that killed West Hill firefighter Ryan T. Barker on Tuesday evening will take about two weeks, Chemung County Sheriff Christopher Moss said Wednesday.
Moss said Barker, 25, of Elmira, died after he was thrown from the 1978 GMC fire engine he was driving when it veered off West Hill Road A in Big Flats, overturned and crashed into a clump of trees. Moss said Barker was traveling south on the narrow, winding road about 6 p.m. when he crashed just north of Vanderhoff Road.
Moss said investigators are working to determine the cause of the crash, which happened as Barker, a member of the West Hill Volunteer Fire Department since January, was returning from a call to a gas grill fire on Harris Hill Road.
"It's obviously a sad day for the community when you lose an individual who's a first responder to emergency situations," Moss said.
It was the first fatality involving a Chemung County firefighter on duty since Richard Sullivan, chief of the Horseheads Village Fire Department, died on April 5, 2006, after a training session.
Barker is the 61st firefighter to die on duty in the United States this year, according to the U.S. Fire Administration's Web site.
Moss said Barker, a husband and father, was alone in the truck that was equipped with a 750-gallon tank with capacity for about 6,000 pounds of water. Moss said it's not clear how much water was in the tank at the time of the crash.
"It had a substantial amount, but whether or not it was totally full we're not sure," he said.
The tank separated from the truck during the crash and landed in the road. The truck, one of the department's three vehicles, was destroyed.
When asked if the truck rolled onto Barker, Moss replied, "No comment."
Moss said it hasn't been determined whether Barker was wearing a seat belt.
"The inspection by the New York State Truck Enforcement Unit will give us a definite answer to that," he said.
Other firefighters also responded to the gas grill fire, said Chemung County Fire and Emergency Services Director Michael Smith. He said the fire was mostly out by the time they arrived.
Moss said there were no witnesses to the crash.
Smith said Barker, with about eight years of firefighting experience, some of it as a driver, "certainly had familiarity with the operation of fire apparatus."
He said the destruction of the engine leaves the department with a tank truck and a brush firetruck also used on EMS calls.
As for the age of the engine that Barker was driving, Smith said 30 years old is "not unusual by any means."
Smith sought to put the minds of West Hill residents at ease.
"Their fire protection and emergency service needs are being met," he said. "Although we have lost a firetruck on West Hill, we are providing an appropriate level of fire protection coverage through the use of the county mutual aid system."
He said Big Flats, Elmira Heights and West Elmira departments will help cover the West Hill district.
"They do this on a normal basis, on an everyday basis, through mutual aid," he said. "So this is not something that is unusual for them. It's just a bit of an expansion of their regular duties."
Smith said the wait for the investigation is difficult for all concerned.
"It's kind of painfully slow," he said. "But by the end, at least we'll know what happened here and what caused it."
Republished with permission from The Star Gazette
Visitation will be held from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Saturday, July 12 at Horseheads Volunteer Fire Department, 134 North Main St., Horseheads, N.Y.. A firefighter memorial service will be conducted at 1 p.m.