Officials said the firefighters had been involved in a vehicle accident and that the crew was apparently overtaken by the blaze they had been battling.
One was a 20-year-old physics student and theater fan, another a former starting right tackle with a master’s degree. The oldest and most experienced had just graduated from college with a degree in natural resources and was planning a career in public-land management.
All were seasonal firefighters working for the U.S. Forest Service when they perished Wednesday in a firestorm on a sun-baked hillside near Twisp, Okanogan County. Their names: Tom Zbyszewski, Andrew Zajac and Richard Wheeler.
The Forest Service has released little information about what happened to the firefighters and four others who were injured except to say that a vehicle accident may have prevented them from fleeing a fast-moving wildfire that had turned on them on Woods Canyon Road.
A fourth crew member, 25-year-old Daniel Lyon, of Puyallup, was in critical condition Thursday at Seattle’s Harborview Medical Center with third-degree burns over 60 percent of his body. Three other firefighters who were in the area were treated for minor injuries, and at least one of them has returned to the fireline, officials said Thursday.
Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers said the dead and injured firefighters were part of the same initial-attack crew.
It was the worst fatal wildfire incident in Washington since four firefighters were killed in the Thirtymile fire in the nearby Chewuch River Canyon in July 2001.
Rogers, whose office was processing the scene of the deaths Thursday, declined to say whether any of the dead or injured had deployed their emergency fire shelters. The Forest Service has called in a national Incident Management Team to investigate the deaths.
The Forest Service also initiated its “critical response protocol” for the incident, which deploys a team to conduct an analysis of what led to the fatalities as a prevention learning tool, said Forest Service spokeswoman Shoshona Pilip-Florea.
The agency also coordinated crisis liaisons to assist families of the dead and injured firefighters, as well as Forest Service employees affected by the tragedy.
“We have a critical incident stress-management team coming in for support,” she said.
The blazes have “burned a big hole in our state’s heart,” Gov. Jay Inslee lamented Thursday. “These are three big heroes protecting small towns.”
Mike Williams, the forest supervisor for the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest, said, “This was a tragic incident, and our hearts go out to their families, friends and colleagues.”
On Thursday afternoon, even as the Okanogan complex fire raged nearby, a long procession of firetrucks and other responder vehicles accompanied three ambulances that carried the bodies of three fallen firefighters from Twisp to a funeral home in Okanogan.
Lights flashing, the caravan wound through the twisted roads and small, half-abandoned agricultural towns under the smoky haze. A group of emergency medical responders in Methow, from the same crew that recovered the bodies, stood silently on the side of the road as the procession passed.
“It is really sad; they were local guys,” said one medical responder who declined to give his name.
The youngest of the victims was Zbyszewski, 20, who lived not far from where he died.
Standing on the back porch of the family home in tiny Carlton, Okanogan County, his mother, Jennifer Zbyszewski (pronounced be-SHEF-ski), said Tom was her only child and was preparing to return to his junior year at Whitman College in Walla Walla in about a week.
It was his second year as a seasonal firefighter. He had worked on an engine crew during the Carlton complex fire last year, she said.
Zbyszewski’s Facebook page, which includes a grinning photograph of him eating a prepackaged meal and dressed in firefighter garb, indicates he was active in drama classes and had been a lifeguard at Wagner Memorial Pool in Twisp.
Jenny Zbyszewski works for the Forest Service and said she was helping coordinate evacuations Wednesday when she learned over the radio that firefighters had been trapped. It took hours, she said, to confirm her son was among the dead.
Both she and her husband have been wildland firefighters as well, and the Forest Service was stamped in Tom’s DNA, she said.
“He liked the physical part, the-get-in-shape part,” she said. “And the work. Mostly, he loved the camaraderie.”
“He was the center of our lives, the joy of our lives,” his mother said.
Whitman College President Kathy Murray sent an email Thursday notifying the college community of Zbyszewski’s death.
“I am deeply saddened to share the news that one of our students, Thomas Zbyszewski, was one of the three firefighters who died on Wednesday in the line of duty while serving on a five-person Forest Service engine crew battling the Twisp Fire in Okanogan County, near his hometown of Carlton, Washington,” Murray wrote.
Murray described Zbyszewski as a junior physics major who was “very involved in the Theatre Department.”
Most recently, Murray wrote, Zbyszewski portrayed the Mushroom King in the Instant Play Festival, Rusty in the “Junglers” (The One Act Play Contest) and the son in “Three Tall Women.”
He also had “a passion for the Chinese language and loved Whitman,” the email said.
David Dinsmore III, on his Facebook page, wrote: “I worked with Tom Zbyszewski for two summers as a lifeguard in Twisp. Tom was one of a kind and I would find myself talking and laughing with him for hours on end. He was an incredibly intelligent young man and someone I looked up to.
“Rest in Peace my friend, you were loved by many more than you could’ve ever known.”
Zajac, 26, lived in Winthrop, in Okanogan County. Originally from Illinois, he received a degree in biology from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 2010 and a master of science degree from the University of South Dakota in 2014, according to his LinkedIn page. Zajac was a two-year starter at right tackle for Case Western’s football team and was named an honorable mention to the all-university athletic association team during his senior year in 2009.
Case Western head football coach Greg Debeljak said Zajac was quiet and academically-oriented, “probably more comfortable in a biology lab than he was at a party.”
At only about 215 pounds, he was small for an offensive lineman, but made himself into a good player, Debeljak recalled.
“It was a testament to his work ethic and desire that he achieved something that honestly very few people felt was possible,” Debeljak wrote in an email. “Andrew will be missed and my heart goes out to his family and friends, but his spirit will live on and should inspire CWRU football players for years to come.”
Zajac had been married for less than a year, his family said in a statement released Friday. He had previously worked as a firefighter in New Mexico.
“Andrew grew up hiking and camping and carried that passion with him, hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013 with Jenn,” the statement said. “He and Jenn were married in November 2014 in a ceremony held outdoors near the Gila National Forest and planned to live a long and happy life in the outdoors together.”
Zajac’s mother, Mary Zajac, is a pastor at Baker Memorial United Methodist Church in St. Charles, Ill. His father, Jim, is a dentist, according to the Chicago Tribune.
This was the second year Zajac was fighting fires out West, his family said.
After learning that Zajac’s mother was a pastor, members of the St. Charles Fire Department went to the church Thursday and hung memorial bunting, Fire Chief Joe Schelstreet told the Tribune.
“There’s a connection between all firefighters,” Schelstreet said. “There’s a bond that we all share. It doesn’t matter if it’s St. Charles or Washington state.”
Wheeler, a 10-year veteran seasonal firefighter in the Okanogan, had lived in Wenatchee for about a year and was working on a career in public-land management, said his father-in-law, Doug Gruber.
Wheeler, 31, had married Gruber’s daughter, Celeste, in 2013 and had lived in South Haven, Mich., during the offseason. They did not have children, Gruber said.
“He died a hero,” Wheeler’s mother, Karen Morey, told WOOD-TV of Grand Rapids, Mich. “He was a loving husband, wonderful son and brother. He will be greatly missed.”
Wheeler loved the outdoors, hiking, fishing, hunting and nature, family members said.
“He’s a hero through and through. He’s one of the greatest guys we know. He died doing what he loved doing,” Wheeler’s cousin Kristy Beauchamp told WOOD-TV. “He had the best sense of humor. He’s sensitive loving and cares for everyone.”
Wheeler and his wife were members of the First United Methodist Church in Wenatchee, according to The Wenatchee World.
“I saw him mainly in the winter,” Pastor Joanne Coleman Campbell told The World. “He was always on fires in the summer. He took his work very seriously.”
Coleman Campbell was with Celeste after she received the news of her husband’s death, the newspaper said.
“He was a first responder and always wanted to be on the front lines. He wanted to make firefighting his career,” Coleman Campbell told The World. “He was a gentle man who loved his wife and his work. If he had to die, I’m sure he would have wanted it to happen while fighting a fire to save others.”
The family of Daniel Lyon spent Wednesday night standing vigil at his bedside at Harborview. The injured firefighter’s older brother believed Lyon “could register” that they were all there.
“Oh man, he’s a good kid all around. He’s definitely the favorite child,” said Levi Lyon, 35, of Tacoma.
Daniel Lyon has mostly third-degree burns on half to two-thirds of his body, according to Dr. Tam Pham, a University of Washington Medicine surgeon and burn-trauma specialist. He is undergoing the resuscitative phase, which involves replacing fluid.
He will have a long road toward recovery, Pham said during a news conference Thursday at the hospital.
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Lyon underwent his first surgery Friday to remove damaged tissue but remains in critical condition, said Susan Gregg, a spokeswoman for Harborview. Gregg says Lyon is still in the Intensive Care Unit.
She says he is unable to speak because he’s on a respirator, but is able to respond when his parents and others speak to him.
Lyon, a Rogers High School graduate and a reserve officer for the Milton Police Department, signed up to fight wildfires simply because he wanted to help, Levi Lyon said.
“His hope and dream was to be a police officer,” he said. “He was doing some forest firefighting to get some extra work. He was trying to help out a good cause.”
Lyon is the youngest of three children. The siblings grew up in Puyallup.
This was Lyon’s first wildfire-fighting season, his parents, Daniel and Barbara Lyon, said at the news conference.
He would call his parents every day and tell them not to worry, that things were going well.
“He talked about the exhilaration,” Daniel Lyon said. “When you’re young, you only talk about the good aspects.”
Milton Mayor Debra Perry and Police Chief Tony Hernandez visited Lyon at the hospital Thursday night
“I was really a little apprehensive about going in. I didn’t want to intrude and in my mind I was like, ‘this man has burnt 60 percent of his body and his chances aren’t good, ‘ ” Perry said Friday morning.
Perry said she was stunned when they walked in and Lyon raised his hand for a high-five when he heard Hernandez’s voice. She’s certain he tried to shake her hand.
”He’s animated, I don’t know of another word. You’re looking at this young man with eyes swollen shut, respirator, bandages and he’s waiving his arms around. I’m blown away,” Perry said. “I think if he could smile he’d smile. I left there elated. This is a fighter.”