Heroes describe rescue of helicopter crash victims

by Ralph Bartholdt
Staff Writer | June 26, 2020 12:39 AM

Men who rescued helicopter crash victims: ‘We just did what a human being would do’

Matthew Suhr will remember a man walking aimlessly in a field, his body smoking, as his clothes and skin burned.

Kinzo Mihara will remember the smell of burning flesh.

Both men were the first on the scene of a Tuesday evening helicopter crash in a field along Highway 41 south of Rathdrum that sent the bird’s two occupants to Harborview Medical Center with severe burns.

Jay Schrank, 42, of Rathdrum, and Jim Charbonneau, 78, of Spokane were both transported to the Seattle hospital’s burn unit after taking an ambulance around 5:30 p.m.to Kootenai Health from the crash site near the intersection of Highway 41 and Wyoming Avenue, about three miles west of Hayden .

The men were in critical condition in ICU late Wednesday, according to a medical center spokesperson.

Suhr, an NIC student who completed his EMT training and plans to study criminal justice at the University of Idaho this fall, and Mihara, a Coeur d’Alene lawyer, were traveling in opposite directions Tuesday afternoon on Highway 41 when they saw a helicopter flying too low westward over the highway, almost clipping power lines before crashing into a nearby field.

Mihara was driving south, taking his daughters to karate lessons in Post Falls, while Suhr was traveling north after work.

Both men stopped their cars and ran toward the wreckage.

Neither of them can remember smoke coming from the helicopter — a small, two-seat 280FX Rotorcraft — while it was airborne, but after it struck the ground they saw a small flame pop up vnear the engine.

“It was a tiny flame, but I could see the doors moving,” Mihara remembers. “You could see them trying to get the doors open.”

The men inside were frantically trying to exit the helicopter but the doors appeared jammed.

Mihara said he made the decision to slam his car into the ditch and told his three daughters to stay put.

“I was imagining like something out of Kobe Bryant,” he said. “What if there are kids in there?”

Bryant, an NBA basketball hall of famer, along with his daughter and seven others, died in a helicopter crash in California earlier this year.

Mihara hoisted himself up over an embankment and ran the 70 yards toward the downed helicopter, he said.

At the same time Suhr, who was northbound, saw the helicopter appear to clip power lines along the highway before spinning and crashing into the field. It was headed west, but its nose was pointed east when it slammed into the ground.

Suhr veered his SUV onto Wyoming Avenue, found a wide spot, parked, and jumped out before sprinting over the grassy field toward the crash site.

He carried a medical kit from his EMT training at North Idaho College.

Both Mihara and Suhr saw Schrank exit the helicopter and walk around as if in a daze, to try opening the door where Charbonneau sat. Schrank’s clothing was on fire and Suhr ordered him to hit the dirt and roll while Mihara yanked open the door and lurched Charbonneau out. In the process, he pulled a layer of burned flesh off his arm.

From behind Charbonneau, a wall of heat and flames boiled into the field, singing Mihara’s face and arms.

“I was 10 feet behind him and I could feel it,” Suhr said.”It was massive. He was holding the fire in.”

Once the helicopter pilot and student were out of the bird they collapsed in a daze.

“The helicopter started popping and spitting,” Suhr said.

Mihara ordered the men off the ground and he and Suhr led them north across the field as the helicopter shuttered and roiled in a ball of fire.

“It was like herding cats,” Mihara said.

The two crash victims aimlessly and in shock walked over the field.

“They were smoking,” Suhr said. “They were still on fire.”

Suhr had called 911 as he sprinted from the road to the crash site, and now ambulances and law enforcement arrived. Others, most notably a CNA who wore blue scrubs, helped the men take care of the helicopter pilot and his student before they were shuttled away in separate ambulances.

Suhr had prepped their wounds with wet gauze and the CNA kept the victims from going into shock.

Neither of the men want the accolades that are likely coming their way for their heroic, lifesaving efforts.

“He’s the hero,” Mihara said Wednesday evening as he revisited the crash site with Suhr.

“No, it’s you,” Suhr said.

“It was a community effort,” the men agreed. “We weren’t the only ones helping.”

Kootenai County Sheriff’s deputies and Northern Lakes Fire personnel stated after Tuesday’s crash that the quick actions of Mihara and Suhr saved lives.

“What they did was outstanding,” said Chris Larson of Northern Lakes Fire. “You can’t ask for more from our citizens ... They absolutely are heroes.”

Mihara is glad the two men didn’t die in a ball of fire that afternoon in the field of knee high grass.

“We just did what a human being would do,” he said.

If he had not stopped, Mihara said, he would have had to live with the consequences.

“Hundred percent,” Suhr said in agreement.

When Suhr goes to college in the fall to study to become a policeman, he will still remember the man, on fire with his clothes smoking, walking aimlessly near the crash site.

Mihara will still recall the victims’ flesh burning and the screams of a man on fire.

But both men will also know they were among a group of people to make a difference one summer night in June in a field south of Rathdrum.

The Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the cause of the crash.

In a world divided by politics and propaganda, it’s heartening, Suhr said, to know people will still step up to help others.

“Even people they don’t even know,” he said.