When the twin-engine plane he was flying in crashed nose-first just after taking off last year, Redmond-based smokejumper Ron Rucker said he thought it was the end.
"The whole airplane broke apart," he recalled. "The whole front end of the plane was gone. Both engines were running full power, I was expecting it to burst into flames any minute."
He was a "pretty happy boy" when he realized he could move his legs, he said, and he got out of the plane as quickly as possible, though he doesn't remember how.
He thought that the other two people in the plane were dead.
But when he saw that Marge Kuehn-Tabor, a smokejumper he was training to be an air tactical group supervisor, was still alive, he went back into the wreckage and dragged her out.
Then he went back again and again to try to retrieve the pilot, Jonathan Stairs, all the while expecting the plane to catch fire.
"My first thought was to save myself, but after I did there was no question" about going back to save the others, he said.
For those actions, Rucker, 52, an air tactical group supervisor at the Redmond Air Center, will be one of two people receiving the Chief's Award for Heroism and Emergency Response from Dale Bosworth, U.S. Forest Service chief, in Arlington, Va., on Wednesday.
"It was certainly above and beyond the call of duty," said James Morrison, a Forest Service intermountain region aviation safety manager who helped investigate the crash and nominated Rucker for the award.
Even though he was injured himself, Rucker disregarded his own personal safety to rescue Kuehn-Tabor and try to rescue the pilot, Morrison said.
Kuehn-Tabor had compressed vertebrae and cracks in her pelvis, and Stairs had multiple leg fractures and a head injury, according to the Forest Service. Both are still recovering.
"I couldn't be more pleased for him," Morrison said about the award.
Rucker, a Redmond resident, said he ended up with multiple cuts and bruises, pulled muscles and a dislocated toe, but was back at work in two weeks.
Smokejumpers are highly trained firefighters who parachute into areas difficult to reach through other means, generally as an initial attack.
Rucker was back to full duty in December, but after narrowly missing a required running time in a test, he lost his job as a smokejumper, he said. He added that he's fighting to get it back.
He said he still gets nervous once in a while flying missions, but it doesn't stop him.
"It's just what I do," Rucker said. "For the most part I enjoy it, I don't mind being scared once in a while, otherwise I wouldn't have been a smokejumper for 30 years."
By Kate Ramsayer / The Bulletin