The men who died Wednesday fighting a fire near Twisp were a college physics student who had a passion for theater, an outdoorsman who recently hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and the son of a firefighter who yearned for a career in the Forest Service.
The three men, Tom Zbyszewski, 20; Andrew Zajac, 26; and Richard Wheeler, 31, were killed after the vehicle they were in crashed and was enveloped by flames. Another firefighter, Daniel Lyon, 25, was critically injured and is being treated at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. He arrived at the hospital Wednesday night with burns to about 60 percent of his body, the hospital said in a statement.
Fire officials gave few new details of the incident Thursday but said the deaths were caused not by the accident itself but by the fire.
Three other firefighters injured in the incident have been released from the hospital, Department of Natural Resources spokeswoman Carrie McCausland said.
The deaths occurred in the scenic Methow River valley about 175 miles northwest of Spokane, where a series of blazes covering close to 140 square miles had merged. The flames burned an undetermined number of homes and triggered evacuation orders for about 1,300 people in the outdoor-recreation communities of Twisp and Winthrop.
|From left to right, Zbyszewski, Zajac and Wheeler (pictured with wife Celeste).|
Zbyszewski was a Whitman College student from Carlton, Washington, and was in his first season as a firefighter on a U.S. Forest Service crew, according to the Whitman College Pioneer.
He was a junior physics major and was active in the college’s theater department, according to a collegewide email sent Thursday.
David Dinsmore worked with Zbyszewski as a summer lifeguard in Twisp and said his friend was warm, caring and easy to get to know.
“Tom was the kind of guy that if you found yourself sitting and talking with him, you would be spilling your guts before you knew it,” he wrote in an email.
He said Zbyszewski loved to make his friends at the pool laugh. Sometimes, he’d put on women’s sunglasses and do an Elton John impersonation, singing songs until his friends were crying from laughter. But he also spoke about wanting to be a firefighter to help people.
“That’s the Tom I will always remember and want everyone else to recognize … Tom’s summer jobs were lifeguard and firefighter, and that was no fluke – this man really cared about other people and was always quick to offer a helping hand to strangers and friends,” he wrote.
Zajac, of Downers Grove, Illinois, and most recently of Winthrop, completed a 4.5-month north-to-south hike of the Pacific Crest Trail in 2013, according to the Wenatchee World.
The year before his epic hike with his girlfriend, he wrote on Backpacking Light in an online forum about couples hiking the Pacific Crest Trail.
“We are hiking because we love backpacking and it was a common goal that we both had before our relationship started,” he wrote.
Zajac was a wildland firefighter with the Forest Service. He received a degree in biology from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland in 2010 and a master’s degree from the University of South Dakota in 2014, according to his LinkedIn page.
Zajac was a two-year starter at right tackle for Case Western’s football team and was named an honorable mention to the all-university athletic association team during his senior year in 2009.
He previously worked as firefighter in New Mexico.
Wheeler moved to Wenatchee with his wife, Celeste, only about a year ago, Pastor Joanne Coleman Campbell of the First United Methodist Church in Wenatchee told the Wenatchee World. The couple were members of the congregation.
“I saw him mainly in the winter. He was always on fires in the summer. He took his work very seriously,” Coleman Campbell said.
Wheeler, who was raised in South Haven, Michigan, moved to Wenatchee to work as a summer firefighter for the Forest Service after earning a degree at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. He hoped his summer work with the Forest Service would become permanent.
He and his wife recently visited the Thirtymile Fire Memorial, where four firefighters died in a fire in 2001, the Wenatchee World reported. He told his wife he admired their courage and sacrifice.
Wheeler’s biological father was also a firefighter. He died when Wheeler was 2.
“He was a first responder and always wanted to be on the front lines. He wanted to make firefighting his career,” Coleman Campbell said. “He was a gentle man who loved his wife and his work. If he had to die, I’m sure he would have wanted it to happen while fighting a fire to save others.”
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