LYONS, Colo. (AP) -- Bystanders and firefighters looked on in horror as an air tanker disintegrated into flames and crashed while battling a 1,200-acre wildfire near Denver, killing both crew members.
"It was just a collective gasp by everybody. 'Oh my God, it went down,"' Roy Safstrom, who was taking pictures of the wildfire, said after the crash Thursday.
Investigators from the U.S. Forest Service and the National Transportation Safety Board were en route to the scene near the rugged Rocky Mountain National Park, about 45 miles northwest of Denver.
The crew members' names were not immediately released. The crash prompted all firefighting planes nationwide to be grounded for 48 hours while it is investigated.
Ground crews were left somber and shaken. "I feel pretty sick," said Dave Sharman, 42, a volunteer with the Allenspark Fire District. "Whether you're on the ground or in the air, you're all part of a team. We just lost part of the team," he said.
The four-engine PB4Y plane had spent the day dropping fire retardant on the flames and was carrying 2,000 gallons of retardant when it crashed, Forest Service spokeswoman Terri Gates said.
Safstrom was in a group of 15 bystanders who saw the plane break up. "There was a bright flash of flame on the left wing. The wing came off and after that he spiraled down," Safstrom said.
The crash brings to 11 the number of people killed fighting wildfires nationwide this year. Five died in a traffic accident in Colorado en route to a fire and one was crushed by a fire-damaged tree in Colorado.
Three more were killed in a June crash in California, after the wings on a C-130A tanker snapped off in the air, sending the fuselage to the ground in a fireball.
"Our heartfelt sympathy goes out to the family members," said Ryan Powers, operations manager of the company. "The crews are like family to all of us -- it's a pretty tight-knit community here."
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