Lawyers offered opposing reasons Wednesday for why a helicopter crashed in August 2008 in California, killing nine firefighters, including eight from Oregon: It was either a well-known engine flaw or an overloaded craft.
The theories came in closing arguments in the weekslong trial of a $177 million lawsuit against General Electric, maker of the helicopter's engines. It was filed by surviving pilot William Coultas, his wife and the estate of another pilot who died, Roark Schwanenberg.
The jury is expected to begin deliberations Thursday in the case in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
GE knew for at least six years there were problems with a fuel control valve in the commercial engines the company built for Sikorsky N-61 helicopters, said the plaintiffs' attorney Greg Anderson. The valve failed in the Sikorsky that was carrying the firefighters, shutting power to one of its two engines, he said.
"GE knew about the problem and they had a history of knowing," Anderson told jurors. He showed them internal GE emails documenting the company's awareness, including emails to helicopter companies operating the aircraft and to Sikorsky, the helicopter manufacturer. GE told them the problem was a service issue, and not a problem with the engine's design.
"They played the issue like a service issue, but it was something much more," Anderson said. "They rolled the dice and people died."
Anderson also pointed to a GE email on Aug. 6, 2008 -- the day after the crash -- detailing problems with the size of the fuel filter, which filters contaminants as small as 10 microns in the military version of the GE engines in the Sikorsky, but only filters contaminants as small as 40 microns in the commercial version of the GE engines.
But GE attorney Kevin Smith said the crash was caused because the helicopter was more than 1,400 pounds overweight at takeoff, and that the pilots were relying on inadequate weight data and inadequate power data of the helicopter's lift capacity provided to them by Grants Pass-based Carson Helicopters, which owned and operated a firefighting helicopter.
The National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the helicopter weighed 19,008 pounds at takeoff, which was actually 3,168 pounds heavier than recommended for safe flight.
Smith said investigators found that the helicopter was at full power when it hit the first tree and remained at full power when it hit a second tree based on sound spectrum analysis from cockpit recorders.
"It was overweight and it clipped a tree and lost a blade tip" from the main rotor, Smith said. "This crash had nothing to do with the engines."
The helicopter went down moments after lifting off a hillside in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest in the early evening of Aug. 5. After crashing about 150 yards from a helipad on the 5,945-foot mountain, the helicopter quickly filled with dense black smoke. Four men managed to escape before fire consumed the helicopter.
The crash, known as the Iron 44 incident, is considered the deadliest air tragedy of working firefighters in U.S. history.
Killed were Schwanenberg, 54, of Lostine; 63-year-old Jim Ramage, a forest service employee from Redding, Calif.; Grayback Foresty employee's Shawn Blazer, 30, of Medford; Scott Charlson, 25, of Phoenix, Ore.; Matthew Hammer, 23, of Grants Pass; Edrik Gomez, 19, of Ashland; Bryan Rich, 29, of Medford; David Steele, 19, of Ashland; and Steven "Caleb" Renno, 21, of Cave Junction.
Injured were Coultas of Cave Junction; Richard Schroeder Jr., of Medford; Jonathan Frohreich of Medford; and Michael Brown of Rogue River.
The families of eight men who were killed and three who were injured reached out-of-court settlements with three of five defendants in multiple lawsuits filed after the crash, including Carson Helicopters and Sikorsky. In December 2010, the NTSB said the crash was the result of a cascade of failures by virtually everyone involved in assuring a safe flight.
NTSB Investigation: The problem, the NTSB inquiry found, "was compounded by pilots who failed to account for the helicopter operating at the limit of its performance."
"Everyone responsible is responsible", the NTSB said the crash was the result of a cascade of failures by virtually everyone involved in assuring a safe flight.
The jury is expected to begin deliberations Thursday in the case in Multnomah County (OR) Circuit Court. Lawyers offered opposing reasons this week for why a helicopter crashed in August 2008 in California, killing 9 Firefighters. Why? It was either a well-known engine flaw or an overloaded craft.
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