Road to recovery

firefighters discharged from hospital
Michael Brown, 20 (right) and Jonathan Frohreich, 18 (left) left the hospital side-by-side in wheelchairs pushed by UC Davis registered nurses from the orthopedics unit who cared for them.

Thirteen men were aboard the Sikorsky S-61 helicopter as it rose off a ridge-top in the Trinity Alps of northwestern California on the evening of Aug. 5. It was the end of a long day of firefighting for the men – most of them employees of Grayback Forestry, a privately owned firefighting outfit based in Oregon.

The chopper got about 120 feet above the forest floor, and then plummeted.

Eighteen-year-old Jonathan Frohreich, sitting by himself in the very back, initially couldn’t understand what was happening. When he did, Frohreich recalled, “I couldn’t believe it.”

The helicopter rolled down a slope and smashed into a tree, ending up on its side. Frohreich scrambled to get out of his seat, smelling fumes and trying to avoid spreading flames. He punched out a window, climbed through, ran maybe 30 feet and collapsed.

Not long afterward the chopper exploded. Nine men died, including seven of Frohreich’s co-workers. It was the worst firefighter air crash in the country’s history. The cause of the crash is under investigation.

Frohreich, of Medford, Ore., was lucky. So was Michael Brown, 20, also of Medford; and William Coultas, 44, of Cave Junction, Ore., the co-pilot. All three were taken to a hospital in Redding for the night, and then transferred to the UC Davis Medical Center, where they were placed in intensive care and treated by a team of burn and trauma specialists.

“Due to their own quick actions and access to immediate treatment, these men are alive and on the road to recovery.”
— John Anderson, M.D.

UC Davis operates the region’s only Level 1 trauma center and one of only two burn centers in Northern California verified and certified by the American Burn Association. Treatments developed by UC Davis trauma specialists have been instrumental in keeping Sacramento County’s preventable death rate at or below 1 percent, less than half the national average. Pioneering treatments developed at the UC Davis Regional Burn Center also have greatly improved a patient’s chance of survival and quality of life.

While Brown suffered burns and fractures to his face and Frohreich had fractures to his lower back and facial burns, neither ended up requiring surgery or skin grafts.

In fact, both young men, whose care was overseen by John Anderson, associate professor of trauma surgery, were discharged after five days to recover at home.

“Due to their own quick actions and access to immediate treatment, these men are alive and on the road to recovery,” said Anderson.

Coultas, who had third-degree burns over 35 percent of his body, mostly his hands, arms, legs and trunk, underwent skin-graft surgery and was in intensive care for 33 days. He is facing rehabilitation that could last a year or more, but according to Burn Center Director Tina Palmieri, he is making “good progress.” His therapy, which includes monthly visits to the UC Davis Medical Center for checkups, aims to build strength and range of motion, and reduce scarring. She said the biggest challenge, as is typical for those with badly burned extremities, will be to restore function in his hands and feet.

But as soon as he fully recovers, he intends to return to firefighting. “The nurses and doctors at UC Davis were great,” said Frohreich. “I am very grateful for the care that I received and I look forward to getting back to my usual routine.”