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Firefighting crew mourns pair

Fire officials begin investigation of the fatal lightning strike

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Fire officials were expected to arrive from Boise Thursday to begin investigating the deaths of two firefighters from the Utah State Prison who were struck by lightning in the Stansbury Mountains west of Tooele Wednesday.

Michael Todd Bishop, 27, and Rodgie Braithwaite, 26, were pronounced dead Wednesday at 1:25 p.m., after lightning struck their small group of firefighters about one hour earlier.

Fellow firefighters Ernest Chacon, 31, Anthony Duran, 25, Michael Lindsay, 34, and Benjamin Taliulu, 23, were struck but sustained minor injuries. All four were taken to University Hospital Wednesday and later released.

The men's crew leader, Jarin Flanders of the State Department of Natural Resources, was not struck but did suffer from shock.

The six inmates served as part of a 20-person hand-line crew known as the "Flame-in-go's." The crew is one of three operated out of the Utah State Prison's Lone Peak facility — a minimum security work facility that houses model prisoners. The four survivors remained in Lone Peak Thursday morning, where they were receiving counseling to deal with the tragedy.

The men will be allowed to return to the "Flame-in-go's" if they wish, said Department of Corrections spokesman Jack Ford. The "Flame-in-go's" crew is nationally certified to help in disaster relief, and participants must have a parole date and no disciplinary write-ups.

With all the summer wildfires, the fire crew has hardly had a day off this summer, Ford said.

"They were doing an excellent job," he said. "Braithwaite and Bishop both were just outstanding. Bishop had been in and out of prison for a couple of years, but he had finally, I think, seen the light. Everybody liked him. He was easy to work with."

Bishop, who was a supervisor on the hand-line crew, was serving time for burglary, theft and a second-degree felony attempted murder conviction from 1993. He was scheduled for parole in October of 2002. Braithwaite was in prison for a 1997 conviction of automobile homicide, a third-degree felony, and was set to be paroled in July 2001.

Wednesday's deaths were the first fatalities in the "Flame-in-go's" 25-year history, according to Department of Corrections spokesman Jesse Gallegos.

As a team of eight investigators arrived Thursday to begin their five- to eight-day probe, fellow firefighters were still sorting through the aftershock of losing two comrades.

"Everybody's really devastated," said Teresa Rigby, a spokeswoman for the Bureau of Land Management. "It's difficult to sort things out in your head. Firefighters are really close; they eat, sleep and work together."

"It's been one of those things that put everything in perspective," said Vi Hillman, Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman. "Our hearts go out to the families and friends and the loved ones of these guys."

At Lone Peak, which houses 240 inmates, news of the pair's deaths gained little reaction.

"There is some remorse, but other than that it's business as usual," Corrections Sgt. Brad Young said. "It's almost like nothing ever happened."

All six victims, along with 31 other firefighters on the mountain from the Bureau of Land Management and Utah National Guard, saw the lightning storm coming and took cover.

The National Weather Service recorded 10 cloud-to-ground lightning strikes in the Stansbury Mountains between 12:15 and 12:45 p.m., a small number, according to meteorologist in charge William J. Alder.

In comparison, Salt Lake County recorded 1,000 strikes in a four-hour period Friday.

"On a scale of one to 10, this was probably either a one or a two at the most," Alder said. "A lot of the lightning fatalities occur when there isn't a lot of lightning around."

It's not uncommon for such storms to strand mountain firefighters, and Alder said it appears the men followed proper protocol in trying to get to lower ground. When lightning moves in, firefighters abandon their equipment, turn off radios and crouch for cover, Hillman said.

"I just thought of all the times I was out on a line and was trapped in a lightning storm," Hillman said. "It's incredibly scary."

Alder said the single bolt may have claimed so many victims because crews had gathered in close proximity.

"I've seen spooked cattle crowd into the corner of a barn or field, and then the lightning hits and the current is conducted through their skin," he said.

Hillman, who spent most of the day talking with the four survivors, said one victim told her he felt the bolt enter his shoulder, then move directly to a metal plate in his foot before he became unconscious.

The Stansbury fire, which started Saturday from a lightning strike, was 100 percent contained by late Wednesday, Rigby said.

"We didn't really see them as inmates, to us they are firefighters," she said of the victims. "I don't want to minimize what has happened because they are inmates. They are just as important as other firefighters; they are some of the best we have."

The deaths are the second and third attributed to lightning in Utah this year. In May, 11-year-old Rachel Green died after she was struck at Midvalley Elementary School.

Alder said 49 people have died from lightning strikes in Utah since 1950, an average of about one per year. Wednesday's deaths put 2000 in a tie for the second deadliest year behind 1963 when four people were killed and 11 injured from strikes. Besides the three deaths, lightning has injured 14 this year, Alder said.

July and August are traditionally the most dangerous for lightning, Alder said. The death's were Tooele's first lightning-related fatalities in 50 years of record keeping.

E-MAIL: bsnyder@desnews.com ; or djensen@desnews.com