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The Observer Paper 11/26/14

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By Ellen Miller

For The Observer

RIFLE, Colo. — In an emotionally distraught courtroom, one which Megan Helm fled in tears as a victim's mother called her a killer, the young Oregon woman was sentenced to a $200 fine and 50 hours of community service on Wednesday.

Helm, 21, was the driver of a Ford 350, a 15-passenger van carrying firefighters to the Hayman Fire on Colorado's Front Range last June 21 when it rolled, killing five and injuring the other six.

The sentence outraged Angie Zigich, whose 18-year-old son, Zachary, was killed.

"That's $40 per body — $40 for my son. It's more for kids caught with liquor in their dorms,'' she said.

Originally charged with 10 counts of careless driving causing death or serious injury, Helm pleaded guilty Wednesday to one count of careless driving with no injury or death. She'll be charged four points on her driver's license.

After emotionally-charged witnesses were finished, her attorney, John Hugger of Evergreen, showed a videotape of a "60 Minutes'' expose on safety problems with the vans that aired before the firefighters died.

Helm then rose, and in a quiet but firm voice looked at Angie and Mike Zigich and said, "To the Zigiches, I'm very sorry for my role in the accident. I'm very sorry, and if I knew then what I know now I'd never have driven the van.''

She was supported by letters from all the victims' families except for the Zigiches, who called for heavy punishment and said it was her fault their son died.

Insisting that she face Helm and her family and friends while she spoke, Angie Zigich turned the speaker's podium around. Garfield County Judge Stephen Carter ordered the deputy district attorney to move the podium across the courtroom to separate the emotional mother and an already-tearful Helm.

"I came here, Megan, to see the person who killed our son,'' Zigich said. "I'm sure, Megan, you walked right by his body.''

Her voice growing in volume and rage, Zigich continued, "Other families may forgive you, but don't delude yourself into thinking you're a victim.''

Zigich held out pictures of her son and demanded that Helm see "what you did to us.''

As she approached the defense table where Helm was sitting, thrusting the pictures out, Carter interrupted and told her to give the pictures to him.

Helm fled the courtroom, crying hard, and her attorney went after her. About three minutes later, they returned.

Those speaking on Helm's behalf included her father, Gil; her father's cousin whom she calls Uncle Mike; Megan Rama, who said she is Helm's best friend and talked of her brother, Dan, who died in the crash; and two firefighters who were riding in the van she drove.

Looking at the Zigiches, Rama said, "You painted a nasty picture today. For anybody to say she did it intentionally, I can't understand it.''

Scott Browers, a rider in the van who was injured, said, "It was a tragic accident that could have happened to any of us. We are a family and Megan is a member."

Browers said Zachary Zigich is mourned as a member of the family while Helm "is a young woman sentenced to a lifetime of regret.''

Mike Zigich said after the sentence that the U.S. Forest Service lets contractors such as Grayback Forestry, which employed the firefighters, get away unregulated and not held liable or accountable.

In his sentencing remarks, Carter noted he's served as a county court judge longer than any judge in the state and has seen his share of tragedy.

"There is no way that I believe you should be punished for a lapse in attention,'' Carter told Helm. "There is nothing in my power to give these grieving parents the closure they seek.

"The people of Colorado owe a debt for you folks coming in to help us out in our hour of need,'' the judge added.

The judge said Helm could serve her community service in Oregon and ordered her to meet with the Garfield County's Useful Public Service coordinator, which she did.

After court, Helm said she intends to use her community service to call attention to the problems with the Ford vans.

Some of the victims' families already have filed a lawsuit in Oregon against the Ford Motor Co., alleging the vans are unsafe and shouldn't be on the road.


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