Three people were killed Thursday when a Brainerd Helicopter Service Inc. helicopter under contract with the U.S. Forest Service crashed during prescribed burning operations near Lufkin, Texas, officials in Texas reported.
The victims, none of whom were believed to be from the Brainerd area, were identified as pilot Jose Victor Gonzales, John Greeno and Charles Edgar, said Heather Crustner, a dispatcher with the Texas Department of Public Safety in Lufkin.
The three were the only occupants of the craft, and they died at the scene. Ages and hometowns were not immediately available.
Lee Andrew, Brainerd, owner of Brainerd Helicopter Service Inc., said Gonzales was hired out of Texas and had worked for him for about three weeks. The other two passengers in the helicopter weren't his employees, Andrew said.
"It's just terrible," said Andrew of the crash.
The helicopter, a Bell 206B-3, went down around 2 p.m. about 60 miles northeast of Lufkin in East Texas, said Gay Ippolito, a public affairs officer with the Forest Service.
The helicopter had flown all morning, then refueled and returned to fly in the afternoon over the rural, pine-studded region, said Shelby County (Texas) Sheriff Newton Johnson.
"The helicopter came over the radio, they were saying, 'Mayday, Mayday, we're going down,' and they crashed in the national forest," Johnson said.
Justice of the Peace O.B. Furlow said the area surrounding the crash site has such dense vegetation that officials had to use a bulldozer to get to the scene.
"It's nothing but pine wood back there," Furlow said.
The 206B-3 is described on the Bell Helicopter Web site as the most popular turbine helicopter of all time. It seats five and has a maximum cruising speed of 133 mph.
Andrew said for the past seven or eight years he has contracted his helicopters, of which he currently has five, each winter for work in Minnesota, Wyoming, Montana and the southern United States. In addition to doing work for the U.S. Forest Service, Andrew said his helicopters are used to check power lines and do aerial work for the Department of the Interior.
Andrew said the last time one of his helicopter's crashed was in June 2003 while taking photographs of the Forestview Middle School construction. The three people on board the helicopter in that crash were uninjured except for some small cuts and bruises. The only other crash of a Brainerd Helicopter Service Inc. helicopter was in 1988.
"We've had some slight accidents, but never had a loss of life or anything," Andrew said.
The Sabine National Forest drew attention in early 2003 as an area where the space shuttle Columbia recovery efforts were concentrated. All seven astronauts died when Columbia broke apart and burned during re-entry.
(This story includes information from The Associated Press.)
MATT ERICKSON can be reached at email@example.com or 855-5857.
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