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Company 'devastated' by firefighters' deaths

Firm's president: 'The hole they leave is enormous'

Clockwise from top left: Paul Gibson, David Hammer, Leland Price Jr. and Richard B. Moore.
Clockwise from top left: Paul Gibson, David Hammer, Leland Price Jr. and Richard B. Moore.

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Jesse James, 22
Jeff Hengel, 21
Leland Price Jr., 27
Ricardo "Ricky" Ruiz, 19
David Hammer, 38
Paul Gibson, 25
Mark Ransdell, 23
Richard B. Moore II, 21

(CNN) -- Eight firefighters who died in a highway crash in Oregon on Sunday while on their way back from wildfire duty were "fine young men" and close friends whose deaths will leave a big hole in the small company they worked for, the company president said.

The eight men died instantly Sunday morning when their van collided head-on with a tractor trailer on a state highway just across the border from Idaho, where they had been fighting the South Fork wildfire, authorities said.

The Malheur County Sheriff's Department said Monday that the van was making an illegal pass when it hit the oncoming truck head-on.

The firefighters had worked for First Strike Environmental Co., a contract firefighting company based in Roseburg, Oregon. Company President Robert Krueger called the accident "devastating."

Their van was part of a three-vehicle caravan of firefighters that included another van and a truck. The other van came upon the scene to find the vehicle immersed in flames, said Kelli Matthews, a spokeswoman for First Strike.

The company has sent officials to the crash scene to debrief the 11 surviving firefighters in the caravan and bring them home, Krueger said.

"These were all fine young men who had worked together for two years," Krueger said. "They were closer than most, and the hole they leave is enormous."

Clockwise from top left: Jeff Hengel, Jesse James, Ricardo
Clockwise from top left: Jeff Hengel, Jesse James, Ricardo "Ricky" Ruiz and Mark Ransdell.

The company has a staff of 20-22 employees, with 200 on board during fire season, Krueger said.

At the charred spot off State Highway 20 where the accident happened, eight American flags were stuck in the ground Monday. Passers-by left cards and flowers.

Sheriff's Deputy James Widmer said the van was making an illegal pass on a bend in the two-lane highway when it hit the truck. The road was marked at the spot with a double-yellow line, indicating it was unsafe to pass, Widmer said.

The firefighters had been working in the Boise National Forest in Idaho, fighting the 6,765-acre South Fork fire. The blaze, which had been burning since August 10 about 20 miles northeast of Cascade, was declared 100-percent contained Monday.

Krueger said the company has contacted the crew bosses of three crews on fires in Montana and Washington to notify them of Sunday's accident, and assess the need to demobilize and return to headquarters.

The company is offering counseling to those employees at the fire camps, he said.

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