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Home / firefighters killed

3 killed in crash of firefighting helicopter near Cabazon

Three men were killed in a midair collision between two Cal Fire helicopters over Cabazon while engaged in firefighting operations, eliciting condolences Monday from the governor and others.

“On behalf of all Californians, our thoughts and heartfelt sympathies are with the loved ones, friends and Cal Fire colleagues mourning the loss of Assistant Chief (Josh) Bischof, fire Capt. (Tim) Rodriguez and pilot (Tony) Sousa,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said.

“This terrible tragedy is a reminder of the dangers our courageous firefighters face daily while working to keep our communities safe. We owe them our deepest respect and gratitude and will always honor their bravery and sacrifices.”

Riverside County Supervisor Manuel Perez, whose 4th District encompasses Cabazon, said he was saddened to learn of the loss of “three members of our fire service (who) perished protecting us from fire.”

“It is a horrible tragedy when those who serve the community do not return home to their families,” he said. “I pray for their families and the rest of the Riverside County Fire Department.”

National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Eleazar Nepomuceno held a news briefing in Cabazon late Monday afternoon, saying a team consisting of two NTSB investigators, a Federal Aviation Administration representative and personnel from the helicopter manufacturers, Bell and Sikorsky, were gathering preliminary information on the midair collision.

“They were on a convergence flight, and they impacted,” Nepomuceno said of the choppers. “Our plan is to document the wreckage before it is relocated to (a secure hangar) in Arizona.”

He said a “drone team,” utilizing remotely piloted unmanned aerial vehicles, would be working Tuesday to survey the crash site.

Nepomuceno emphasized that the immediate objective is to procure “perishable” evidence that will vanish once the wreckage is removed and the crash site is cleaned up.

Federal investigators are encouraging anyone who might have information to contact them at witness@ntsb.gov.

Agencies throughout the region expressed sorrow over the deadly accident. Murrieta Fire & Rescue posted to social media, sending “deepest condolences” to the family, friends and colleagues of the fallen crew.

“Our thoughts and prayers are with you,” the agency said.

From the Palm Springs Fire Department: “Our heartfelt condolences for the line-of-duty deaths of two Cal Fire firefighters and a contract pilot. This tragedy has left us deeply shaken and mourning the loss of our brave colleagues.”

The Riverside County Sheriff’s Department posted a Facebook message, saying, “On behalf of the entire sheriff’s office, we extend our deepest sympathy to the families (of the fallen).”

The Orange County Fire Authority posted a message offering condolences. “Our hearts are with our Cal Fire family and all the loved ones, friends and colleagues impacted by this tragic loss,” the agency said.

The crash happened about 6:55 p.m. Sunday near Pipeline Road and Apache Trail, according to the NTSB and sheriff’s officials.

“We have lost three great individuals,” Cal Fire Southern Region Chief Dave Fulcher told reporters during an emotional briefing Monday morning.

The Bell 407 and Sikorsky S-64E collided while conducting operations connected with the “Broadway Fire,” which scorched about 20 acres in the area of Broadway Street and Esperanza Avenue.

The Bell was piloted by Sousa, 55, with Bischof, 46, and Rodriguez, 44, serving in observational capacities, according to Fulcher. The helicopter crashed on a hillside, killing all three aboard. The crash caused a four-acre fire that was quickly knocked down, Fulcher said.

The Sikorsky, which was occupied by two people, landed without incident after the impact. Nepomuceno said there was “minor damage” to the Skycrane.

The Skycrane, which was dispatched to the area two months ago for the duration of Southern California Wildfire Season, was making drops over the blaze.

It was not immediately clear why the choppers were not positioned at safer distances or altitudes. Cabazon lies within the San Gorgonio Pass, with arching terrain both north and south, limiting maneuverability.

“Although this was a tragic event, it could have been worse,” Fulcher said.

The two helicopters were among a half-dozen aircraft sent to the blaze, Fulcher said.

Updated August 8, 2023, 12:36 a.m.

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