Death of firefighters leaves families in mourning and officials searching for answers

Published: Monday, June 4 2012 2:00 p.m. MDT

A single bouquet of flowers is stuck in the fence at the gates to the interagency fire center in Cedar City Monday, June 4, 2012. A P2V heavy air tanker crashed, killing both Boise crew members Todd Tompkins, 48, and Ronnie Chambless, 40.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

MODENA, Iron County — Family members and firefighters Monday were mourning the loss of two Idaho men who died in a plane crash while fighting a large fire that remained only partly contained in Utah's Iron County.

Todd Neal Tompkins, 48, and Ronnie Edwin Chambless, 40, were dropping fire retardant from a P2V heavy air tanker over the White Rock fire when the plane crashed in the Hamblin Valley area shortly after 2 p.m. Sunday. Both men were from Boise.

The White Rock fire has been burning since Friday, when it was sparked by lightning 25 miles east of Caliente, Nev. The 8,000-acre blaze crossed over the Utah state line Saturday and was 15 percent contained as of Monday evening.

Tompkins and Chambless were assisting fire crews by dropping retardant on the fire, and officials said the plane was on its second run when it crashed.

The plane went down in a rocky canyon laden with thick juniper, Iron County Sheriff Mark Gower said, and it appeared the plane's right wing tip first hit the ground. The plane crash left a 500- to 600-yard debris field. Cause of the crash remained under investigation.

"The plane was destroyed in its entirety," the sheriff said, noting that the engines were the largest pieces still somewhat intact. "Everything else had disintegrated, basically."

Jack Horner, chief of the Hamblin Valley volunteer fire department, said when emergency crews arrived at the scene of the crash there was no chance to help.

"I was one of the first on the scene," Horner said, "and there was nothing we could do. I mean, it was a ball of fire."

When Horner and his team couldn't get to the plane, they concentrated their efforts on keeping the approaching wildfire from reaching the wreckage.

The sheriff said it is unclear if the men radioed for help. Van McKinney of the National Transportation Safety Board said Monday that it appears the plane "collided with terrain during a fire retardant drop."

The plane was owned by Neptune Aviation Services of Missoula, Mont., according to officials with the Bureau of Land Management. A phone message left with the company was not returned Monday, but McKinney said Neptune representatives and others from the Federal Aviation Administration were expected at the crash site with NTSB investigators today.

McKinney estimated a preliminary report on the crash would be released in about five days.

Tompkins, who was piloting the airplane, and Chambless were the only two men aboard the tanker.

Gower said his office had completed its portion of the investigation and had turned the men's remains over to the state medical examiner for autopsies.

"From there, family will take possession of the remains," Gower said. "They've lost, I'm sure, some dear family members while serving to try and protect life and property from these fires."

Tompkins' wife, Cassandra Cannon, said her husband — a 17-year veteran of aerial firefighting — was dispatched to the White Rock fire Sunday and immediately placed in the flying rotation. He grew up wanting to fly and found firefighting rewarding.

"He really liked this type of flying because it was always interesting and challenging to him," she said. "In the back of his mind I knew he understood the risks. But he used to come back and talk about so many instances where he felt like their work saved communities, that they had saved lives.

"It was powerful to hear him talk about that and recognize that value of what he did."

Her husband had just started flying with Chambless this season and the pair had only flown a few missions together. Tompkins leaves behind three children: Phoebe Turner, 16; Sam Turner, 15; and Paige Tompkins, 10.

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