It’s known in the firefighter community in Los Angeles as the crash of helicopter Fire 3. One of the deadliest days in LAFD history. A crushing blow, a horrific loss for the firefighters’ families. And, an unfathomable loss of to a family who lost their daughter back in 1998.
A Los Angeles City Fire Department helicopter rushing a young female patient to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, crashed in Griffith Park. Three brave firefighters and an 11-year-old girl were killed in the crash. Two other crew members who were severely injured, survived. The cause of the accident, catastrophic tail rotor failure. And, that wasn’t the only tragedy L.A. City Fire mourned that year.
Another LAFD tragedy: the death of Captain I Joseph Dupee
Just two weeks before the crash of helicopter Fire 3 incident, the LAFD lost another one of its own. Now firefighters were grieving the loss of four of their brothers to die in the line of duty. Captain I Joseph Dupee, at the time, was the first firefighter to die on duty in more than 14 years. Joseph was killed on March 8, 1998 while fighting a fire in a commercial structure in South Central Los Angeles.
The Los Angeles “air ambulance,” Fire 3, crashed in a heavily wooded area in Griffith Park at 7:40 A.M. on March 23, 1998.
The death of 11-year-old Norma Vides
At the time of the crash of helicopter Fire 3, the LAFD crew was transporting severely injured 11-year-old Norma Vides of Sun Valley to the hospital. She had been airlifted from near the scene of a car accident minutes before the chopper went down about 50 yards from a residential neighborhood. Norma was being transported to Children’s Hospital Los Angeles, two miles from the park. The girl as well as the two paramedics and a helitac flight crew member were killed. The pilot and a second helitac crew member survived.
The Los Angeles Times reported, “The car accident that injured Norma occurred as her 17-year-old cousin was driving her and five other family members, including her mother, to three different schools. Authorities said the driver may have been blinded by the low, early morning sun.”
“Norma was one of six children living with Genoveva Anaya, a Salvadoran immigrant who is raising her family in a four-bedroom apartment. Her husband [was] in El Salvador, waiting to finalize immigration papers, neighbors said,” according to the Los Angeles Times.
LAFD Fire Chief William Bamattre said witnesses “reported seeing some problems with the tail rotor” before the helicopter crashed. Fire officials believe the tail of the aircraft had begun to disintegrate moments before the crash.
Retired LAFD Captain I James Finn remembers that dark day
“You know that significant incident…the crash of Fire 3. That was our helicopter at March 23, 1998. Transporting a young girl from an accident in the [San Fernando] Valley, to Children’s Hospital, because there is no pediatric trauma center in the Valley, and over Griffith Park the tail rotor broke, the helicopter went down, it killed three of our people,” an emotional James says “This still gets to me.”
Each year, James reads the names of each of these firefighters during the LAFD Fallen Firefighters Memorial ceremony in addition to Joseph Dupee. He says, “That was four line-of-duty deaths.” And, he recounts a fifth firefighter death. “We also had one more, a firefighter that was training to be a scuba diver. He only had short time left to get certification and conditions were not good for diving that day. He wanted his certification and ended up drowning. That was five, just in the span of two months.”
“That’s what started Liz Bamattre, the wife of former LAFD Fire Chief William Bamattre, thinking of a memorial. That was the gist of the idea back then, in 1998,” James says. We actually ordered our statues in 2000. And then we started construction on the memorial in 2004.”
Today, the LAFD Fallen Firefighters Memorial is located at the LAFD Museum and Historical Society. It honors the 277 members of the L.A. City Fire Department who made the ultimate sacrifice in serving the citizens of the Greater Los Angeles area. 274 names on the front. Three names on the back of the memorial.
For more on LAFD Retired Captain I James Finn and the LAFD Fallen Firefighters Memorial Watch this video:
The brave LAFD firefighters who died in the crash of helicopter Fire 3
The heroes who survived the crash of LAFD helicopter Fire 3
According to the LAFD: In the days that followed, much was said and written, including the missive below about the crash survivors, Pilot Steven Robinson, an 11-year veteran of the LAFD, who died more than 17 years later in 2015, and helitac crewman Dennis Silgen. This was penned by renowned fire photographer Mike Meadows, appearing in several fire service publications:
“While firefighters were mourning the loss of three of their own, they were also praising Robinson for maneuvering the doomed helicopter away from homes, sparing those on the ground from injury and even death and shutting off the fuel supply to minimize the fire potential. It appears now that Robinson, who had very little control over his aircraft, had, at least, enough to attempt a very hard landing right side up on Fern Dell Drive, but after seeing cars and people below him, tried to maneuver his ship as best he could to a grassy clearing nearby, but the rotors of the helicopter came in contact with some trees causing the copter to flip and hit the ground on its left side.
One fire captain from fire station 90, near Van Nuys Airport where the fire helicopters are based and who works with Robinson said, ‘everyone knew they were going down; he (Robinson) knew he had a problem and did everything he could to minimize to situation after impact.’ Public Information Officer Bob Collis said ‘he did everything he could do before he hit the ground.”
Eyewitnesses describe the crash of helicopter Fire 3
According to the Los Angeles Times: “Witnesses said the white-and-red Bell helicopter clipped tall pine and redwood trees before slamming into a patch of grass just off Fern Dell Drive, close to a Los Feliz neighborhood of elegant residences.”
“He wanted to land, but I guess he was avoiding the homes,” resident Janet La Pietra told reporters for the newspaper. “He was swaying back and forth, flying very low.”
First on the scene was a group of general relief recipients who were on work detail in the park. Several of them rushed to the downed craft in a futile attempt to rescue those inside.
“It looked like he was going to come down right on top of us,” one of the workers, Orlando Beard, of Hollywood, told the Los Angeles Times. “We tried to get in, but the doors were jammed.”
Grief and sorrow: The LAFD helping families cope with tragedy
“It was such an impactful event that I remember I was at the Drill Tower as an instructor and we had gotten word that one of our helicopters went down carrying a child that they were trying to get to Children’s Hospital. And, knowing that, not only does this have a ripple effect, that some of our firefighters passed away and some of them seriously injured, “says Retired Los Angeles Fire Department Captain II, Rick Godinez. “But those firefighters were from Fire Station 81, which happened to be my first house on probation. And, being at the drill tower as an instructor, I was also on the critical incident support team, peer support, and critical incident teams. And, we handle basically those type of crisis to go talk to firefighters that are dealing with that, dealing with issues, trauma related issues, significant events.”
Rick, worked for the LAFD as a chaplain and counselor, describes what families were going through. “I responded to Fire Station 81. Now, the off-duty firefighters that worked at that fire station were coming to the fire station. Their families were showing up to the fire station just to support the crew. So, it was really an environment now where there was some grieving, there were a lot of tears shed, and it was just an opportunity for me to basically work the room a little bit to interact with some of our firefighters and their families to let them talk about what’s going on, let them talk process this properly. And then, obviously, that carried over into working with the families and getting them through the memorial services and getting them through this new way of life now with the loss of their loved ones. And then the firefighters who lost their brothers that day. So, it was very impactful.”
“We had just lost Joe Dupee right around that same time. So that was such a crazy year for us because we hadn’t lost a firefighter in years. I mean, I think Ben Pinel was probably the last firefighter that we had lost, and that was when I was a rookie in the Drill Tower. And to have them back-to-back, that was really kind of a hard time on the fire department dealing with the line-of-duty deaths. It was something that a lot of us hadn’t experienced before, and we were all grieving because it is a family.”
The cause of the crash of LAFD helicopter Fire 3: tail rotor failure
Former LAFD Battalion Chief Steve Ruda describes what happened that fateful day in the crash of helicopter Fire 3. “They had a catastrophic tail rotor failure as it crossed the Hollywood sign, swooping down into the foothills of Hollywood to go to Children’s Hospital. The catastrophic tail rotor, it’s very, very difficult to try and stay airborne. But the pilot did the best he could to try and self-rotate down, auto rotate.”
Steve says, “The aeronautics of it is very, very complicated and very tedious. And so that helicopter was going to go over across Griffith Park and right there at the end on the outskirts of Hollywood, they crashed into, they just barely cleared the trees and the last obstacle hit the skids of the aircraft and then inverted and went in.”
“So that was very, very difficult to get on scene. Captain Alfred Poirier of Fire Station 82 was first to respond and called for extra resources…it was all tragic. When you lose life, it’s never good. We also had a ranger from the Griffith Park Observatory area in Griffith Park. The Ranger was a first responder and did a great job in courting off the area, guiding the firefighters in. But, we lost, a great deal of sacrifice happened on that air three incident.”
Rescuing lives and facing death: the impact on the firefighter family
Firefighters face the possibility of losing their lives. According to Steve, it is part of the job. “But that’s not on our mind when we’re rescuing others. We’re there to be a solution to problems, not an addition to the problem. So, they’re going to try, from the pilot to the crew in the back sustaining the life of this little child. That was our goal. But, then, of course, the tragedy comes that we have fatalities there of our own.”
“And we’re used to seeing death as firefighters,” he says. “We’re used to sacrifice. But when you lose one of your own knowing that at home is a wife and children involved, it makes it even harder. So, the families were very, very devastated by the loss of two paramedics and an apparatus operator…So that was devastating for the whole department. And, firefighters’ funerals, there’s nothing more emotional than to see your own. And the city did a great job in allowing us to take over the streets and having procession from the Sports Arena area. And even one of the young sons of [one of] the paramedics got up and spoke about his father. I think he was about 12 years old, did a marvelous job. So, we still stay in contact with our families and how the kids are doing, how they’ve grown up. And that was a tragedy. But you got to pick up from tragedies and live your life.”
Firemen’s Relief Association helping firefighter families
“The Fireman’s Relief Association founded in 1906 and was started because firefighters in 1906 on an incident, so impressed the Union Pacific Railroad, that they offered a donation to the firefighters. But the firefighters said, we’re not worthy to take this money, but we’ll take this money and build an organization that’ll help widows, orphans and disabled firefighters. And that’s our name, Los Angeles Fireman’s Relief Association, Widows, Orphans & Disabled Firefighter’s Fund. And we’ve been doing that since 1906,” Steve says.
“So, the association is run by firefighters, the volunteers that are trustees that take the responsibilities of dues paying members and the benefactors…the need of our widows, orphans and disabled, because that’s what we’re all about…So, we come alongside the widows and the families and we just don’t say, okay, we’ll be with you just for the funeral and then forget about you. You’re part of that family, that fire service family. And we stay with them for all these years,” says Steve.
“And so, the children have grown up, their needs are met by the money that was received through donations to the organization. And we stay with the widows and we stay with them to help them through some tragic times. And that’s probably one of the greatest things about the association is that many give their time and effort to do the work…So, it’s really important for them to understand what the organization’s all about. And we’ve been around for a long, long time.”
By Charles Stewart