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Eight-Mile Ridge Fire

by Douglas Baird (North Cascades '58) |

The following account of a tragic plane crash is an excerpt from the personal journal of Doug Baird written during his rookie year at NCSB.

JOURNAL ENTRY, JUNE 30, 1958: It was an exciting first week of training, a great beginning! However, we didn't have the opportunity to enjoy the upcoming weekend. The events of the next few days cast a dark cloud over much of the summer. On Monday, June 23rd, a great tragedy occurred. As an on-the-spot witness I will relate the incident to the best of my knowledge.

During the weekend of June 21-22, severe lightning storms were forecast for the Cascade Mt. Range of northern Washington. As a result, all of the personnel on the North Cascade Smokejumper Base were placed on weekend alert. Fire patrol flights regularly took off to spot potential fires. On Sunday night, hundreds of lightning strikes were charted. With the extremely dry conditions, fires were sure to be sighted soon. Monday morning found us going through our regular training routines. After several false alarms, the excitement finally started.

Our Monday afternoon activities were interrupted by several fire alarms. During the course of the next few hours, about ten of the experienced jumpers were sent out on four different fires. It was exciting to see the personnel on the base in real action. All the rookies were impressed! This was the real thing! We wished we had already completed our training so we could go out with them, but we had to be content to watch.

The base received a call from the district fire headquarters between 3:00-3:30 p.m. that all of the rookies were needed on a fire that had blown out of control. This was a fire manned by four jumpers earlier in the day. The fire was on a steep mountain ridge in very dense timber. We quickly loaded up some fire gear and boarded the trucks, and away we went. We all considered this a real insult. Think of it - Junior Smokejumpers being used as "ground-pounders!" It took about three hours before we finally arrived at the fire site. It was around 6:00-6:30 p.m. The fire was located on Eight-Mile Ridge, about 15-20 miles north of Winthrop, Washington. The terrain was very steep and rough. The fire was about three acres, very hot, and quickly spreading. We were organized along the fire line and worked hard to contain the fire by attacking the hot spots.

Within about 30 minutes of our arrival on the fire line, the jumper plane (a twin-engine Beechcraft), piloted by hot shot flying ace Bob Cavanaugh, started circling the area and prepared to make a cargo drop. They were in the process of dropping cargo, including meals and other needed supplies, on some of the fires in the area. As the aircraft buzzed within 200 feet of the tree tops, the spotter kicked out some cargo. It was a perfect drop! The cargo chute landed in a small clearing near our base camp. A big cheer went up, mainly because we wouldn't have to cut the cargo chute and our dinner down from a big tree. Cavanaugh was greatly admired as a top-notch pilot. He had more hours flying a Twin Beech than anyone in the Forest Service. He had served in the military during the Korean War as a Navy pilot. He was the best - someone we had learned to admire and trust.

THE CRASH: After making the first cargo drop, the plane disappeared from sight as it went over the ridge and prepared to circle and return for several more drops. One of the jumpers standing near me commented, "Boy, what a life, and us down here on the ground!" A few seconds later, we heard a distant "thud" sound, much like a falling tree hitting the ground. In fact, the guy standing next to me said, "There goes a snag." "Yeah," I replied. At that same time, two jumpers working on the fire near the crest of the ridge starting yelling at Elmer Neufeld (CJ-44), "Elmer, we think the plane just crashed!" Within seconds, Elmer received a radio call from a nearby lookout station confirming that, indeed, the plane had gone down.

Elmer immediately organized a search & rescue crew of ten men. We quickly gathered some fire tools and medical supplies and hurried a mile or two through heavy timber and rough terrain to the crash site. It wasn't hard to find. What a scene it was! We could see where the plane had topped-off dozens of trees as it had gone down. The site was heavily timbered and was in flames. It appeared the plane had exploded at impact. It was total destruction. All that was recognizable were two badly burned engines, part of the tail section, and one of the mostly-intact wings lodged against a tree. The main part of the crash site and the burnt area around it was about an acre. The perimeter of the site was still burning hotly, everything inside was either still burning or smothering and very hot. We all stood in dazed silence. Our hopes of a rescue were smashed. The smell of aircraft fuel and burning flesh was strong and repugnant. We quickly searched the area looking for any sign of life.

Then someone said, "Look! There's Cavanaugh." I said, "Where?" Then I saw. His badly burned body laid near part of the wreckage that looked like it may have been the cockpit. Cavanaugh was heavyset, and there was no question that it was him. It appeared he was still harnessed in the pilot's seat. It was a horrible scene - one that I will never forget.

THE SEARCH: As we looked on in shocked disbelief, Elmer had been looking for other bodies and trying to confirm how many people were on the plane. Since we were unsure, and since only one body seemed to be at the crash site, Elmer organized a search for the others. We knew there had to be at least two in the plane, the pilot and spotter. Perhaps the spotter had realized what was happening and had time to jump before impact. He may have had time to get his chute open - we didn't know. As we were getting ready to search and discuss these possibilities, a radio message came with horrible news: four men were aboard the plane.

Our emotions were high as we wondered who of our friends were in the plane. All ten of us in the search party quickly spread out in 50-yard intervals and started walking back in the direction of the flight path when the plane first started knocking the tops off the trees. It was dusk and, in the undercover of the tall trees, it was an eerie feeling walking alone through the trees. The silence and loneliness of the search became very individual for me. I prayed for a miracle, but without any real hope. I dreaded the idea of finding a jumper dangling from a tree with an unopened chute or of seeing a crushed body lying on the ground. It was a horrible feeling.

After we had been searching for 10-15 minutes, I heard someone shouting for everyone to return to the crash site. As I walked up the hill and approached the crash site, someone said, "None of them ever knew what hit them." Upon closer examination, Elmer had located all four bodies in the impact area - their bodies burnt beyond recognition. We anxiously inquired as to who was in the plane. The answer was shocking and devastating. We were told that along with Bob Cavanaugh, our two trainers, Jerry Helmer (NCSB-53) and Gus Hendrickson (NCSB-47), were on board. We were stunned and struggled with the realization. We also learned that a local forester, Bob Carlman, was on board as an observer. Faced with one shock after another, I found it difficult to talk or even to breathe as the emotions crept up into my throat. Elmer, knowing that there was work to do, quickly ordered us to attack the fire. Even though we were greatly saddened and still in shock, we proceeded to build a fire line and put down the hot spots. Elmer told us not to move, touch or disturb anything at the crash site. An investigation into the whole tragedy would have to be conducted. By 10:00 p.m., we had completed building the fire line and knocking down the hot spots. Elmer kept three of the crew with him and sent the rest of us back to the original fire to assist there. Those that remained at the crash site later helped place the remains of the four dead into body bags and pack them to the nearest road. Those of us back on the main fire worked through the night until 4:00 a.m., at which time we were relieved by a 15-man ground crew. It was a much welcomed relief. We were emotionally and physically spent. It was a quiet and sad group of rookies that returned to the base early in the morning of June 24th. Our world had changed forever.

WHAT HAPPENED? As the investigation proceeded, it was never really determined what happened. The most likely theory was that the plane may have hit a severe downdraft and was sucked into the mountain. Given the fact that the weather was very hot, with severe thunderstorms all around, that is probable. Another possibility mentioned was that one of the plane's engines stalled, but that was never confirmed. Since the aircraft was at such a low altitude during its cargo drop, either problem could have caused the plane to dip low enough to hit the trees. The other possibility mentioned was pilot error. Perhaps Cavanaugh, in a hurry to finish the cargo drops on our fire and get on to the next fire before dark, tried to make a tight turn up the ridge instead of taking the safer route out over the valley. I suppose it doesn't really matter what happened; the awful thing was - it happened! Nothing could bring them back. Three of our admired and trusted crew had been lost, and we all mourned their deaths.

The impact on all of the rookies was profound. For the first time in our young lives, we all had a strong sense of our own mortality. Lost forever was that youthful, reckless sense of immortality. Most of us had never lost anyone close to us, let alone those whom we had come to trust and rely on for our very lives. The reality of the scheduled events of the coming days was also discomforting. Next week all 20 rookies would be expected to face the open door of another plane, piloted by someone we neither knew nor trusted, a stranger. We would be expected to board the aircraft, fly out into mountain terrain and leap out the door at 2000 feet above the valley floor into space. We would do this with less than a firm hope that the plane wouldn't crash and that our chute would open. Given the tragic events on Eight Mile Ridge, the excitement and enthusiasm of that prospect has been greatly diminished. In the days following that tragedy, we were given the option to cancel our contract and relocate, but duty, pride, loyalty, and the necessity of summer earnings are powerful motivators - so likely we all will take our chances and hope that the big first step out the door of the Twin Beech won't be our last.

SOBER REFLECTIONS: Remembering the first day of training (one week ago), I was impressed with a statement Elmer Neufeld made. He reviewed with us the fact that since its organization in 1939, no fatalities had occurred at the Smokejumper Base at Intercity Airport. It was a record they were very proud of. Elmer told us, "We don't believe in the saying that the odds will catch up with us." Needless to say, the whole experience left us all anxious about the future. It was no longer just a game. The odds had won out.

The truth is that life is a gamble. Nobody has any assurance that tomorrow will come. There is often a small line between life and death. Consider the jumpers who were dropped on a nearby fire before the jumper plane crashed. Then there is the forester, who didn't need to be on the plane at all. What moved him to take that ill-fated flight? Small, seemingly insignificant choices can have long-lasting consequences. My hope is that I will be less casual and more thoughtful about the decisions I make and how I try to influence others. I hope I can be more attentive and listen to my inner voice when it warns me of impending danger. I feel a greater necessity of standing up for what I know to be true and maintaining the courage of my convictions. If I am going to survive and live a long and productive life, I'm going to need all the help I can get from wise parents, trusted teachers and friends, and from the Lord. As I review my life so far, I feel sure that my life has already been preserved more than once, both temporary and spiritually. However, at such a time as this, it's not hard to realize that sooner or later my time, too, will come. In the meantime, God willing, it is my desire to live a life that means something and is both useful and joyful.

TRAINING GOES ON: We didn't get back into the regular routine until Thursday. On Friday a planeload of jumpers from Cave Junction, Oregon, arrived to help. They also brought with them two Beechcraft, duplicates of our doomed aircraft. They were discomforting to look at. Two jumpers were dropped on another fire during the next couple of days, but by the weekend, all the fires were out. In spite of the funerals, memorial services and the continuing investigation, we are still scheduled to experience our first jump on Monday, June 30th. That's tomorrow. I've been waiting and thinking about tomorrow for some time now. I can't say that the idea isn't stimulating!

I really don't know what to expect, but the dye is cast. I'm as ready as I will ever be. I have received excellent training. I have worked hard. Now is the time to concentrate on the task at hand. The training is geared to drill the routines and procedures into you so it becomes automatic. Fear of the unknown is so strong, and things happen so quickly that it must be automatic. The things I'm thinking about now are my position going out of the airplane and the landing. Those are the two things that can result in injury and about the only two things I can personally control. Everything else that could go wrong is out of my hands. If the plane crashes, if my chute doesn't open, or if my heart stops - there's not much I can do - so why worry?