COURT SHOULD GRANT LENIENCY TO HELM

December 09, 2002 12:00 am

Enough is enough. The time has come to end the extended ordeal that Megan Helm has had to endure. Helm is the 21-year-old driver of the van that overturned in Colorado nearly six months ago, claiming the lives of five firefighters.

A PRE-TRIAL hearing was supposed to have been held last week in Garfield County, Colo., in the case in which Helm is charged with several counts of careless driving. Attorneys asked the judge to delay the hearing so they could study reports on the type of Ford van that Helm was driving. The matter will now be considered on Jan. 22.

The case boils down to who or what was at fault in the June 21 accident. Helm allegedly was leaning over to pick something up when the van went out of control and overturned on Interstate 70 near Parachute, Colo. Her attorneys are expected to argue that the van was unsafe and had a tendency to roll easily.

THE CASE HAS GONE ON on long enough. Family members of some of the firefighters who died or were injured have asked that the the court grant leniency to Helm. As Linda Shirley, the mother of 19-year-old Retha Shirley who was killed in the crash, has said, "Megan has punished herself enough. There is nothing the court can do to bring Retha back."

Attorneys should recognize that this was an accident — avoidable perhaps as such incidents usually are, but still an accident. An agreement should be reached soon, bringing an end to the matter. Ford Motor Company's alleged responsibility can be argued in court cases down the road.

There's little reason for the case against Megan Helm to drag on much longer.

MAKE FIREFIGHTING SAFE

The Forest Service did the right thing in grounding 11 airtankers Friday before further fatal accidents occur. Inspection and maintenance programs are being developed for other airtankers that will continue the dangerous mission of battling the nation's wildfires. The airtankers are used to drop water and foam on fires, and were on prominent display during the record-setting fire year of 2002.

THE YEAR WAS NOT only bad for fires. It was also bad for fire accidents. Six fire crew members died in two airtanker crashes and a helicopter crash.

The Forest Service's action of improving safety standards in its firefighting program is overdue but commendable nonetheless. Study has shown more training is needed for personnel, and closer inspections of equipment are needed.

The focus needs to be not just on compliance with regulations but with saving lives — and making safe working conditions for the heroes that battle fires from the air. Inspection and maintenance programs to be designed must be rigorous to ensure no repeats of the deadly firefighting year of 2002.