A firefighting helicopter crashed in Cabazon on Sunday evening after a midair collision with another helicopter fighting the same fire, killing all three crew members aboard, authorities said. The other helicopter managed to land safely.
Those killed aboard what was described as a Bell helicopter in an observation and coordination role were a Cal Fire division chief, a Cal Fire captain and a contract pilot, said Cal Fire Southern Region Chief David Fulcher. He and other fire personnel wore black tape over their badges during a midnight news conference as they mourned the department’s loss.
A Sikorsky S-64 helicopter, better known as a “Skycrane,” with two aboard was able to land safely following the collision, Fulcher said. Skycranes typically drop water or retardant.
“While engaged in the firefight, two helicopters collided,” he said. “Tragically, all three members perished” who were aboard the helicopter that crashed.
“This was a tragic loss for the community, the fire service community at Cal Fire and the Riverside County Fire Department,” Fulcher said.
“While this was a tragic event, we are thankful it wasn’t worse,” he said. “The individuals in the first helicopter were able to land safely without incident and no one else was hurt.
“We think about this and how it affects the families. We have lost three great individuals. Three fathers. Three husbands. Three friends. Three sons,” he said.
After the crash, emergency personnel were called to the area near Apache Trail and Bonita Avenue/Pipeline Road around 7:20 p.m. for an air emergency, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department. Cabazon is a community along the 10 Freeway east of Banning. The crash happened south of the 10.
The helicopters had been called to a nearby fire that Cal Fire/Riverside County Fire Department crews were battling near Broadway and Esperanza avenues. It started in a structure around 6 p.m.
The skies were mostly clear in the area early Sunday evening, with wind speeds ranging from 9 to 14 mph and gusts of 17 to 25 mph, according to National Weather Service meteorologist Mark Moede.
The Broadway fire was measured at about three acres and its forward rate of spread had been stopped by 7:13 p.m., Cal Fire/Riverside said.
A second fire caused by the helicopter crash was stopped at four acres, Fulcher said.
Both helicopters were under contract to work for Cal Fire.
The National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the crash.
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