September 04, 2002 11:00 pm

By Ellen Miller

Special to The Observer

RIFLE, Colo. — Megan Helm, the 21-year-old driver of a van that rolled on Interstate 70 in June and killed five Oregon-based firefighters, appeared in Garfield County Court for the first time Tuesday to be advised of her rights.

Attorneys disclosed that the 15-passenger van may have been carrying a "black box'' similar to those found on airplanes and it could contain valuable information about the last few seconds before the fatal crash.

Both Deputy District Attorney Jeff Cheney and Helm's attorney, John Hugger, asked for and received a restraining order to keep the van in place and secure at a Rifle auto-body shop.

Helm faces 10 charges of careless driving causing death or serious bodily injury. She is free on her personal recognizance and won't be required to appear in court again until something substantive develops, such as a plea bargain or trial.

County Judge Stephen Carter said Helm could participate in pretrial motions by telephone to save her and her family the expense of traveling from Oregon for routine matters.

"The real story is the van,'' Hugger said. "The federal government knew it was unsafe and it's what the Forest Service puts its firefighters in.''

Studies have raised questions about the safety of the large passenger vans, and most school districts don't allow their use, Hugger said.

Helm and firefighters in eight vans, all employees of Grayback Forestry, were headed for the disastrous Hayman Fire on Colorado's Eastern Slope when the van went off the interstate and rolled four times about three miles east of Parachute.

It's about 40 miles west of the scene of the last forest-fire related tragedy connecting Colorado and Oregon. In 1994, 14 firefighters from Prineville, died in a blowup on Storm King Mountain near Glenwood Springs.

Dan Rama, 28, of Baker City; Retha Shirley, 19, of La Grande; Jake Martindale, 20, of Boise; and Zachary Zigich, 20, of Twin Falls, Idaho, died the night of the June 21 crash. Bartholomew Bailey, 20, of Baker City and Corvallis died three days later.

State police said Helm was momentarily distracted, perhaps reaching for a pop or ice cream, when the van swerved and rolled.

Helm left court with her family. Her sister, Andrea, came over to reporters and said, "I'd like to make a statement. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of the victims.''

Cheney said he's awaiting a report from the Forest Service from its own investigation before he proceeds with the case.

Hugger said he understands the state patrol let representatives of the Ford Motor Co. examine the van, and that he fears data from the black box might no longer exist.

Ford apparently has concerns about possible civil liability, Hugger said, perhaps without realizing the van's importance to the criminal case against Helm.

Cheney said the van has been returned to an auto-body shop lot in Rifle, and he joined in Hugger's request for a restraining order to keep the van from being tampered with.

"You draft it, I'll sign it,'' Carter told the attorneys. "They have to not move it anymore or let more people crawl over it.''

There were no families of victims in the courtroom, but in previous interviews, support for Helm was strong.

"It is a tragedy'' that Helm has been charged in the case, Carla Schaffer Bailey, mother of Bartholomew, said three days after his death. "We all forgive her totally. I wish there were no charges.''

Several days after the accident, firefighter Wade DeBraal, 36, who'd been riding in another van trailing Helm, said the van went off the shoulder into sand.

"It just really could have been any vehicle,'' he said. "A split second, a couple of inches and the lay of that road all tied in to make that happen.

"We don't blame her for this,'' he added. "It's not her fault.''