MIDEWIN INTERAGENCY HOTSHOT CREW REPORTS FATALITY
(Wilmington) April 25, 2004 — One firefighter was killed and another severely injured in an accident that occurred while the Midewin Interagency Hotshot Crew was en route to their home base after being released from a fire assignment in Florida. The Midewin Hotshots, based in Wilmington, Illinois had been assigned to the East Fork Fire on the Apalachicola National Forest.
The accident occurred late Friday night, April 23, in West Memphis, Arkansas. Al Toepke, 30, was killed, and Vance Hazelton, 30, was injured and remains in serious condition in Memphis, Tennessee. Both men were from Winona, Minnesota, and were employed by the U.S. Forest Service for the Midewin Hotshots based on the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois.
The cause of the accident is under investigation by the local authorities and the U.S. Forest Service.
Funeral services for Al Toepke are scheduled for 1:00 p.m., Friday, April 30, at Peace Church in New Salem, North Dakota. A memorial service is scheduled for 1:00 p.m., Saturday, May 8, in Winona, Minnesota. The location of the memorial service will be announced later.
The Toepke family has requested that contributions in Al’s memory be made to either of two organizations:
Dakota Pheasants Forever, Bismarck, North Dakota (www.dakotapf.com)
YMCA Camp Olson to support cabin restoration or camper scholarships as it celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2004 (4160 Little Big Boy Road NE, Longville, MN 56655).
This was Al Toepke’s second season as a wildland firefighter on the Midewin Interagency Hotshot Crew. He had worked for the U.S. Forest Service previously in Ketchikan, Alaska on the Tongass National Forest, followed by jobs with the Minnesota Conservation Corps, and as a general laborer in Montana.
Vance Hazelton is a crew squad boss and began his firefighting career in 1998 in Alaska, followed by positions in Wisconsin and North Carolina.
Cards and letters to both families may be sent in care of the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, 30239 S. State Route 53, Wilmington, IL 60481.
FURTHER INFORMATION: THE FOLLOWING UPDATED INFORMATION IS PRELIMINARY AND SUBJECT TO CHANGE
Deceased Firefighter: Alan Toepke
Injured Firefighter: Vance Hazelton
Preliminary Factual Findings: The crew was returning from a fire assignment. The crew had stopped for the night and was residing in a hotel adjacent to Interstate 40. The accident occurred approximately 12:00 midnight (per Arkansas State Police Report). Visibility was reduced because of rain and darkness. Three crewmembers were attempting to cross Interstate 40. Two crewmembers were struck by an 18-wheel, semi-truck. One sustained serious injuries; one was fatally injured. The injured firefighter is in serious but stable condition at a local Memphis, Tennessee hospital. The three crewmember’s destination was to a restaurant/bar on the opposite side of t! he interstate to check for fellow crewmembers. Alcohol was consumed by some crewmembers after they checked into the hotel and were off shift.
Narrative: One firefighter was killed and another severely injured in an accident that occurred while the Midewin Interagency Hotshot Crew was returning to the Midewin Tallgrass Prairie, their home unit in Wilmington, Illinois. The crew was demobilized from the East Fork Fire on the Apalachicola National Forest near Tallahassee, Florida on Thursday, April 22, 2004. They began the drive home on the following day. On Friday morning, the crew left Tallahassee at 0800 and drove until 1730 when they stopped for the night in West Memphis, Arkansas. The accident occurred at 12:00 a.m. (per Arkansas State Police Report) on Saturday, April 24, 2004, in West Memphis, Arkansas. Alan Toepke, 30, was killed and Vance Hazelton, 30, was injured and remains hospitalized in Memphis, Tennessee.
They were attempting to cross U.S. Inter! state 40 on foot near the hotel where they were staying. At the time of the accident, visibility was reduced because of rain and darkness. Their destination was a restaurant/bar on the opposite side of the interstate to look for fellow crewmembers. On Saturday, April 24, 2204, the remainder of the crew was moved to another location away from the accident site and was flown home on Sunday afternoon. Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (CISD) is underway and ongoing. The Arkansas State Police conducted investigation of the accident site and a report was provided. A Forest Service Special Agent arrived at the incident site on Saturday morning by 0900 and began gathering preliminary information. A Forest Service Serious Accident Investigation Team arrived in West Memphis, Arkansas on Sunday, April 25, 2004, to investigate the accident.