IRON COUNTY, Utah -- Two Boise firefighters were killed in a firefighting crash in Utah. NTSB Investigators arrived Monday to begin investigating, but they did not plan to visit the wreckage until Tuesday after fire officials could clear them to safely get to the site.
"We will wait until we are cleared in by the management that is handling the fire, the Department of Interior on scene commanders so we will not do anything until they have cleared it and made it clear to us that it's safe for us to go in and look at the wreckage," NTSB Investigator in Charge Van McKenny said.
The Iron County Sheriff's Office said that just after 2 p.m. Sunday, dispatchers received information that a firefighting air tanker had crashed near the White Rock Fire in the Hamlin Valley area of Iron County, Utah.
The P2V Lockheed Martin aircraft was piloted by Capt. Todd Neal Tompkins, 48, and co-piloted by First Officer Ronnie Edwin Chambless, 40, both of Boise.
The plane and crew were on their second run of the day, and it was estimated that the plane held approximately 1,600 gallons of fuel on board as well as over 2,000 gallons of fire retardant. The plane was nearing the fire when it crashed.
The plane crashed in the pathway of the oncoming fire. Other local aircraft fought the fire to keep it from encroaching upon the wreckage until members of the Iron County Sheriff's Office were able to assess the scene and determine that both Tompkins and Chambless had perished.
"The plane had gone down into a, kind of a canyon," Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower said. "It looked like a right wing tip had hit the ground, and caused the plane to start into a cartwheel type, uh, crash...The plane was destroyed in its entirety. The only thing that was of any size was the motors, the engines. The rest of the plane had disintegrated, basically."
Authorities say there is no immediate cause of the accident.
Tompkins' wife Cassandra Cannon says her husband had flown air tankers for 17 years and believed the work he did was meaningful and impacted the safety of others. Cannon says Tompkins was dispatched to the wildfire Sunday and immediately began fly-overs. Tompkins is the father of three children.
40-year-old Ron Chambless was active in the community and described as one of "the best and most active volunteers" with the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, which helps raise money for and support families of injured and fallen firefighters.
"He would come on Christmas and stuff packages and help wrap packages and he just helped a lot raise money for the families and never in our wildest dreams did we think we'd bury him," Vicki Minor, Wildland Firefighter Foundation, said. "He was dedicated to community and helping take care of the families of the injured and fallen, and here he is now one of them."
Minor says Chambless was working on a project in their office to get photos of all the helicopters and airplanes that had gone down in the line of duty to accompany photos of the firefighters who have died.
"These guys in the air keep those wildland firefighters safe. They protect them. They're their angels in the sky," Minor said. "[Sometimes] they die. Those wings fall of those aircrafts, things happen to them that are horrible."