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Firefighters' Valor Recalled at Ceremony

Memorial: Park monument marks site of helicopter crash. Men were trying to save girl.

November 11, 1998|SUE FOX | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Four slender trees, one for each life lost, rise from the spot in Griffith Park where Fire Department Helicopter 3 crashed last March, killing three firefighters and the young girl they were rushing to the hospital.

As the sun winked through the treetops shading the site Tuesday morning, dozens of firefighters mingled with the families of their fallen comrades, exchanging hugs and memories of the men. They gathered to unveil a memorial to the rescuers who died trying to save someone else.

Paramedics Eric F. Reiner and Michael A. Butler and crew member Michael D. McComb were killed in the March 23 crash, the Fire Department's deadliest air disaster. The men were part of a team taking an 11-year-old girl, Norma Vides-Anaya, who had been injured in a Sun Valley car accident, to Childrens Hospital in Los Angeles.

The girl also died when the helicopter, crippled by a faulty tail rotor, went down in a grove beside Fern Dell and Red Oak drives in the park.

"These men chose a job they loved," Fire Capt. Steve Ruda told the crowd. "All who pass this way will know of the courage, dedication and sacrifice that was displayed by them."

Mayor Richard Riordan also spoke, recalling the shock and sorrow he felt after the accident. "We will never understand why these men and this little girl were taken from us in the prime of their lives," he said. "But we will always be grateful they were part of our lives."

Though vestiges of the disaster could still be seen--branches of two nearby trees had been clipped by the falling helicopter--the memorial ceremony was filled with signs of life.

Butler's wife, Maria, cradled her infant son Matthew, who was born five months after his father died. Reiner's four children, ranging in age from 2 to 10, helped tug the tarp off the monument to their father and the others, revealing a plaque mounted on a rock.

The monument is surrounded by a small garden and sheltered by four crape myrtle trees. It was designed by the Fire Department, the Department of Recreation and Parks, the Los Feliz Improvement Assn., and other groups.

Reiner's son Nicholas, 10, read a poem he had written for his father. "I have a friend who passed away," he began. "But in my heart he's here to stay."

The memorial to Mike, Eric and Mike, as the men were known to their colleagues, sparked recollections of the day they died. In the crowd were people such as Hector Rivera, a Griffith Park gardener who pried open the door of the fallen helicopter to get to those inside, and Fire Capt. Robert Linnell, the medical supervisor at the crash scene.

"We got the call and we all looked at each other. This chill went through all of us," Linnell said, remembering how firefighters at the nearby Melrose Avenue station sped, sirens screaming, to the scene. But when they arrived and absorbed the horrific sight of the red and white chopper resting on its side, it was strangely quiet.

"It was silent," Linnell said. "That's what I remember mostly."

Reiner's wife, Lisa, said she appreciated the "soft way" the Fire Department chose to acknowledge her husband, who loved gardening and landscaping.

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