June 25, 2002 11:00 pm

By Alice Perry Linker

Observer Staff Writer

The driver of the van that overturned in Colorado Friday has received overwhelming support from the families of those involved in the fatal crash, her father said Tuesday.

Facing a small group of newspaper reporters and television cameras, Gil Helm of Christmas Valley said his daughter, Megan Helm of La Grande, has had "a lot of help and support in getting through this. It's a tough situation and it's tragic, so many people. ... Everybody from Grayback has been great — supportive."

Helm, 21, was driving a van that rolled on Interstate 70 in western Colorado. Five of the 11 passengers in the van were killed and six were injured. Megan Helm suffered minor injuries.

Gil Helm and two of his daughters, Tina, 27, and Andy, 24, spoke to reporters following a gathering of the Grayback Forestry employees from La Grande. He said Megan attended the gathering but left early under emotional stress.

The family of Daniel Rama, who died in the accident, has been "fantastic," Gil Helm said.

"This is overwhelming. Everybody we've met, everybody involved has been fantastic. There's no animosity," he said. "We've had calls from all over the Northwest from people who've experienced the same thing. They're all saying, ‘Stay in there.' "

Two La Grande wildland firefighters who were traveling in the ill-fated convoy stressed their support for Megan Helm, who reportedly was reaching for a snack when the van veered to the left.

"We don't blame the driver," said Scott Bowers, a paramedic. "It is not her fault, and none of that should go to her. It could've happened to any of us. It was a freak thing."

Bowers, who said he's talked to Megan Helm since the accident, said, "She's having a tough time."

Firefighter Wade DeBraal praised Megan Helm's driving ability, saying, "She was driving proper all the way."

DeBraal said the convoy pulled off the highway at a rest stop in Utah for a five or six-hour break, and Bowers said the group had stopped about three miles before the accident occurred.

DeBraal, who was driving the van behind Helm's, said the Colorado State Police had reported the accident accurately. The van veered to the left onto the sandy shoulder beside the interstate.

"It played out like the troopers said," he said. "She was trying to bring it all together. She tried to correct and came out of the median."

According to police reports, the van rolled about four times. Five firefighters, including Retha Shirley, 19, of La Grande, and Rama, 28, and Bartholomew Bailey, 20, both of Baker City, died.

Grayback has suspended operations in the wake of the tragedy, and owner Michael Wheelock said Tuesday he does not know when operations will resume. Bowers and DeBraal said they would be ready to return to the fire line when the company begins.

"I'll be back working for Grayback," Bowers said. "They're a great company."

"We support each other," DeBraal said. "I want to be there for my own personal reasons and for the others. "