November 23, 2003
First Strike battles alcohol claims with video, ethanol study
After Swissair Flight 111 crashed off St. Margaret's Bay, Nova Scotia, on Sept. 2, 1998, killing all 229 passengers and crew members aboard, toxicological tests on the pilot and copilot revealed the presence of alcohol inside their bodies.
No other evidence indicated that either pilot had consumed alcohol before or during the flight headed from JFK International Airport in New York to Geneva, Switzerland.
Six other passengers on board Flight 111, who because of their age or cultural backgrounds were not thought to have ingested alcohol, were also tested. Five of those also tested positive for alcohol.
The Transportation Safety Board of Canada, which investigated the crash, concluded that none of the crew members nor the passengers who were tested had ingested alcohol before the crash. Instead, it found that ethanol was produced by the effect of bacteria on the bodies, which is not unusual in aviation crashes, the board said.
"It is not unusual for ethanol to be detected during toxicological testing of aviation accident victim tissue specimens," read a safety board report on the crash. "Post-mortem ethanol production is the result of bacterial action and is part of the putrefaction process."
First Strike Environmental has raised the possibility that the same thing occurred following the Aug. 24 crash in which eight firefighters from the Roseburg-based company were killed on U.S. Highway 20 west of Vale.
The company has been charged with drunk driving, reckless driving and 18 counts of reckless endangerment. Malheur County District Attorney Dan Norris said the company was responsible for the actions of its driver, Mark Ransdell, 23, in causing the wreck.
Company officials and attorneys are relying on videotaped evidence from a convenience store in Vale to argue that Ransdell was not intoxicated when the vehicle crossed a double yellow line and crashed head-on with an oncoming semitruck.
The videotape, recorded 20 minutes before the wreck, shows Ransdell and 19 other members of the First Strike crew that had spent 11 days fighting a fire in the Boise National Forest outside of Cascade, Idaho, entering the store together and heading down several aisles.
Ransdell, who came up to the counter with a 12-pack of beer, was second in a line that had eight or nine people in it. He allowed a customer who was not part of the firefighter group to step in front of him and pay for his items while Ransdell waited.
When he placed the beer on the counter, Ransdell had no trouble taking his wallet out of his pants and showing his identification to the clerk, First Strike attorney David Terry said. Ransdell made the purchase as the store owner watched the transaction from a stool a few feet away.
During the 12-minute tape, Terry and First Strike president Bob Krueger said nothing they saw indicated that any of the crew members were under the influence of alcohol. It was inconceivable that Ransdell could have gotten drunk in the 20 minutes after the crew left the store and before the crash if he wasn't intoxicated already, Terry said.
"This is the truth. The video is the truth. It is what it is," he said. "Twenty minutes from the time the beer was bought to that accident, there are supposedly four people who are drunk. We can't believe it happened that way."
Company officials claim the alcohol bought by Ransdell and several other crew members in Vale, along with beer purchased earlier that morning in Cascade, was stored in a cooler on top of the van. No beer was brought into the cab, Krueger said other crew members told him.
Just carrying the beer on top of the vehicle violated Oregon Department of Forestry rules that say firefighting crews cannot possess alcohol while on a fire and during trips to and from a fire camp. Krueger said company officials believed it was OK to carry beer back as long as it wasn't in a vehicle or consumed during the trip. He said the crew had planned to spend the night in Burns and would have been allowed to consume it there.
Blood tests performed initially on samples taken from Ransdell's body revealed a blood alcohol level of .13 percent. Less than two weeks ago, new tests performed on blood samples taken at the same time revealed a blood alcohol level of between .05 percent and .07 percent. A urine test done at the same time showed an alcohol level of .07 percent, under Oregon's presumed intoxication standard of .08 percent.
"We don't believe the toxicology results," Terry said, questioning whether any of them are valid.
Norris could not explain why the test results differed, but said he still believed Ransdell was under the influence of alcohol when the crash occurred.
Several factors play into the defense's contention that the fluid samples are suspect, he and Krueger said. The bodies, which were burned beyond recognition, remained in the van for several hours before they were taken to an Ontario mortuary, nearly 30 miles away. The temperature that day in Vale was in the upper 80s, which would have also had an effect, Terry said.
It took several more hours before the samples were taken from the bodies. Although the blood and urine were kept refrigerated that night, they were not placed in a cooler or otherwise kept cold during the 376-mile trip from Ontario to Portland. That could also affect the results from the samples, Terry said.
Bacteria present in decomposing bodies frequently produces alcohol in amounts equal to that of intoxication, Gary Kunsman, chief toxicologist of Bexar County medical examiner's office in San Antonio, Texas, told the Wildfire News, a firefighting industry publication.
"Post-mortem alcohol production is a very odd thing," Kunsman said. "It doesn't occur in all bodies, and it doesn't occur at the same rate in bodies, even under the same conditions."
Without stronger evidence, First Strike officials said they will continue to believe the crash was caused by a lack of judgment on Ransdell's part in passing in a no-passing zone.
"We are saddened by what happened, but this was a collision, an accident, nothing more," Krueger said.
* You can reach reporter John Sowell at 957-4209 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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