Walker remembers: New tanker crew memorial unveiled Saturday

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WALKER, CA (KOLO) - June 17, 2002, the town of Walker, California is threatened by a wildfire. An air tanker, a nearly 50-year-old former military plane carrying a load of retardant is making a run, ready to drop when it's wings snap off, the fuselage spiraling to the ground.

An image taken from an KOLO video of an air tanker breaking up near Walker, Calif.

It's seared into the memory of all who witnessed it, a bright tragic moment in the history of those who do the dangerous work of fighting wildfires, a sacrifice that won't be forgotten. For the Wass family, it's the moment they lost one of their own.

Raised in the Minden-Gardnerville area, Steve Wass piloted tankers all over the country. That day he was operating from the airport where he had learned to fly making drops over landscape he knew well, and typically shrugging off the danger.

"It's an inheritantly dangerous job because you're low to the ground and that makes it a lot worse," he told me that day. "But, as always, the goal is to come home every year. It's tough conditions, but you just take precautions."

Minutes after I talked with him, Wass' co-pilot, Craig Labare and engineer Mike Davis, died doing what they were driven to do.

Immediately, a grateful community set up makeshift memorials, crosses, and flowers.

They were quickly followed by a more permanent monument. And it became a shrine of sorts, where firefighters would travel to, leaving notes, coins, battalion shirts to note their visit. For the curious passerby, it told the outline of what happened here, and who had been lost.

The Wass family traveled down from Gardnerville each year cleaning up the place and with each trip, noted the monument was deteriorating.

"My dad said before his passing, one thing he'd wanted to have done is have it rebuilt, " says Steve Wass' brother Jeff.

So, funds were raised and the town responded. Jeff Wass' son, Jakota, an aspiring songwriter produced a Youtube music video, which brought in more donations.

Then they turned to Anthony Lange, a soft-spoken, talented stone mason and artist raised in Walker. He was given a free hand in design and execution.

"Everybody in the community tells us what a wonderful job he does so, yeah, we're excited to see it," says Wass.

Lange, a veteran firefighter himself, took to the assignment.

"To be able to do this for my town and the Wass family, it means a lot."

Saturday, August 10, 2019, it will be unveiled. The Wass family and KOLO 8 News Now got a first look Friday.

It's worth a look, perhaps even a drive; certainly a stop whenever you're traveling U.S. 395.

A piece of art meant to honor three men who died defending this community. A story told in bronze and native stone, built to last.

Ceremonies get underway Saturday at 10AM at the Walker Community Center. The unveiling at the crash site along U.S. 395 follows at 11:30AM.

Copyright KOLO-TV 2019