Local business owner copes with tragedy

Grayback employees file into Lithia Amphitheatre for the memorial service honoring those who died at Iron 44.

Grayback employees file into Lithia Amphitheatre for the memorial service honoring those who died at Iron 44.

He learned compassion in some of life’s toughest classrooms. As a youth, Mike Wheelock first experienced the torment of sudden grief, when two close relatives abruptly perished. “When I was thirteen,” he said, ” I lost  my sister in a car crash.”

Less than a decade later, a crime characterized by unspeakable violence took his brother’s life. Wheelock candidly related his struggle with anger and  bitterness. “For years,” he said, “I’d question God’s purpose in taking such good people.”  

After a van wreck in 2002 claimed the lives of five Grayback crew members,
Wheelock felt convinced that God showed him the answer. “It was so that I could help others. After all this time I was able to feel their loss.” Still, the shocking mishap convinced Wheelock he could never go through anything like it again.

Then on August 5, 2008 came the heart-shattering blow: a helicopter transporting seven Grayback firefighters had slammed down California’s Shasta Trinity  National Forest’s slopes. Named for the complex situated fifteen miles northwest of Junction City, the Iron 44 incident was deemed U.S. Forestry’s worst aviation disaster.

Historically, the 1994 Storm King fire in Colorado claimed more firefighters’ lives. Nine of the fourteen  hailed from Prineville, Oregon.       

To those who know him, but don’t know his history, Wheelock seems an  emotional  rock of Gibraltar. Families of the fallen, and of the injured survivors look to his comforting words. Colleagues, subordinates, and Forestry team members praise his caring nature and integrity. Tom Knappenberger of the U.S. Forest Service said, “Mike Wheelock genuinely lives and treats others the way a true Christian should.”

On August 15, Wheelock coordinated with Carson Helicopters, the U. S. Forest Service and interagency fire community to present a tribute at Lithia Amphitheatre.

Members of the media included crews from CNN, in New York City. Two employees of COIN 6 TV said they arose at 1:30 a.m. to drive down from Portland. 

Among  thousands in attendance over 300 Grayback employees arrived by vans from bases in Merlin, Medford, La Grande, John Day, OR., Mt. Shasta, CA, and  Missoula, Montana. “Hot shots” representing numerous  wildfire-community agencies sported T-shirts of various colors indicating their affiliation.      

A motorcade begun at RV Mall proceeded along Biddle Road, and entered Expo’s gate 2, through an arch formed by crisscrossing two fire district’s aerial ladders.

The memorial honored  Shawn Blazer, Scott Albert Charlson, Edrick J. Gomez, Matt Hammer, Jim Ramage, Steven Caleb Renno, Bryan James Rich, Roark Schwanenberg, and David Elijah Steele.

Among the speakers, Marvin Brown of the Oregon Department of Forestry emphasized the heroics of the deceased, and that  “We share a dangerous job.”

Steve Metheny of Carson Helicopters paid homage to his employee, Roark Schwanenberg, the highly experienced pilot who perished with the work crew. Metheny said Carson Helicopters had never before incurred an accident.

Congressman Greg Walden approached the mic with a quote from John 15:13, “Greater love hath no man than…to lay down his life for his friends.” He called the deceased men heroes, and concluded with, “May God grant them salvation, and their families, peace.” 

When Wheelock addressed the crowd, his eloquent voice broke momentarily as he told of receiving the horrible news of the crash.  He said he’d read in scriptures that that God would never give us more than we can bear. But at that moment he considered  this beyond what he could handle. “God did give me a way out,” he said. “He gave me the stories of each one of these fallen firefighters. He gave me the warm embrace of their families…surviving comrades, and most of all…he gave me his own strength.”  

Wheelock told of visiting the injured men in their hospital rooms; when they first spotted him they asked how soon they could return to work.   

Finally, he beseeched  the audience to keep firefighters in their prayers. “This fire season has a ways to go,” he said. “…battles are raging, and brave firefighters–like the fallen we are honoring–are protecting life, property, and our natural resources.” 
By F.C. Blake
Of the Independent

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