Pain still fresh on anniversary of crash
June 19, 2007
Dr. Michael Zigich says it’s true what he was taught in medical school, about no death being harder to take than that of a son or daughter.The Idaho anesthesiologist and his wife, Angie, learned that painful truth five years ago tomorrow, when his son Zachary, 19, died, along with four other wildland firefighters in a van accident on eastbound Interstate 70 near Parachute. “It is the most devastating thing. It’s something we live with every day. It’s five years out, and our son’s room is still the way that it was left,” Zigich said.Those who died as a result of the accident were Zachary Zigich; Retha Shirley, 19, of Oregon; Daniel Rama, 28, of Oregon; Jake Martindale, 20, of Idaho; and Bartholomew Bailey, 20, of Oregon.The accident, which happened while the firefighters were headed to fight the giant Hayman Fire near Denver, inured several other people. It occurred near where three firefighters died fighting a wildfire in the Battlement Mesa area in 1976, and in the same county where the Storm King Fire killed 14 firefighters near Glenwood Springs in 1994.To this day the van accident produces deeply differing emotions among those it left behind.The Zigiches remain resentful toward the van’s driver, Megan Helm, who survived; the firefighter’s private employer, Grayback Forestry of Oregon; and other parties connected to the crash.”Basically they all walked away with virtually no punishment. I don’t think they have a realization of what a horrible thing they did,” Michael Zigich said.By contrast, Rama’s father, David, said Grayback had treated his son well, and he believes Helm was a “victim of circumstances” for having been at the wheel of a Ford 15-passenger van at the time of the accident.Van lawsuit settledFord long has been the target of lawsuits and federal scrutiny because the vans are said to be prone to tipping when fully loaded. Families of the Parachute crash victims sued Ford. Both Zigich and Rama said the parties reached an out-of-court settlement a year or two ago, but they aren’t allowed to reveal the financial terms. Ford could not be reached for comment but has argued in the past that its vans are safe.To Zigich, any danger inherent in the van doesn’t excuse Helm’s actions. The firefighters had stopped in Parachute for a snack before the accident. He said the accident report indicates the van wrecked as Helm was trying to eat an ice cream treat that required use of both hands.”To me it’s just like how could you be so careless, eating and trying to drive?” he said.Prosecutors struggled over whether to charge Helm because of families’ varying views about her guilt or innocence. She ended up with a sentence of 60 hours of community service and a $200 fine for careless driving.Helm was 21 at the time of the accident and lived in Oregon. Today, she is a beautician on a cruise ship overseas, said Rama, whose daughter is a longtime friend of Helm’s. Rama said Helm found it too difficult to go back to firefighting after the accident.”Over the years she’s conducted herself with great class and dignity during very trying circumstances. … She’s a cool kid,” he said.Forest Service worker ‘really responsible’Zigich said he’s also bothered that Terry Barton, the former Forest Service employee who started the Hayman Fire, never was charged in connection with the van accident. “She really was responsible for these five people being killed,” he said.After the accident, Denver defense attorney and legal analyst Scott Robinson had said it would have been difficult to prosecute Barton in the deaths. She is serving time for arson.Zigich said the Forest Service did “sort of an investigation” into the accident but the result was a whitewash. Grayback never was penalized or had its Forest Service contract changed after the accident, he said.Grayback and Forest Service officials were not available for comment. Rama said Grayback stopped using the 15-passenger vans after the accident and has warned other contractors against using them.Zigich doesn’t think the accident victims’ families accomplished anything in terms of boosting public awareness about the vans. But Rama said families have talked to firefighting contractors, churches and other groups that use the vans, and some got rid of them or modified them to improve their stability. In some cases van users simply removed a seat so the vehicles would hold fewer passengers and be less top-heavy.Helm talked about the van’s dangers as part of her community service, even putting out bumper stickers “about how friends don’t let friends drive and ride in 15-passenger vans,” Rama said.Zigich said it’s important for anyone to wear a seat belt in the vans, “because they are killers.”Some families continue to maintain crosses and mark the site where the firefighters died. Rama said he’s never felt a need to see it.”It wasn’t going to do anything to bring Dan back,” he said.Instead, he’ll mark Thursday’s anniversary by remembering Dan at home and going to a meeting for families who have lost children through various means.Zigich said he may visit the accident site during next year’s anniversary date.”It’s a hard day, it really is. I hate June 21. It’s just a hard day for me and my wife,” he said.