Hundreds mourn downed tanker crew
MINDEN — For a man whose cockpit was his church pew and the Sierra skies his cathedral ceiling, it seemed fitting Saturday that family, friends and coworkers filled an airplane hangar to say good-bye.
More than 800 people crowded into the Hutt Aviation hangar at Minden-Tahoe Airport for a “celebration of life” for pilot Steve Wass, 42.
Wass was the pilot of an air tanker that crashed Monday while fighting the Cannon fire near Walker, Calif. His crew — flight engineer Michael Davis, 59, of Bakersfield, Calif. and co-pilot Craig Labare, 36, of Loomis, Calif. — also died in the crash.
Everyone who spoke, from former teacher Ron Lynch who infected him with “flying fever” in fourth grade to actor Cliff Robertson who often flew with Wass –remembered him as an outstanding pilot who lived and loved to fly.
“It was hard for Steve to believe that any Hollywood actor could admire or envy a pilot putting out fires in Nevada,” Robertson said.
Robertson said he tried to explain to Wass how he could find “more sanctuary, more happiness in Minden and Gardnerville than you could ever find in the specious values of Hollywood.”
“He had a remarkable grasp of life’s meaning for a man so young. He lived life fully. He had his music and his friends here in Minden where we already miss him so very much,” Robertson said.
The memorial for Wass, of Gardnerville, followed a ceremony earlier Saturday for all three crash victims at Douglas High School. Thirty firefighting vehicles ringed the high school athletic field. A sound system blared “Purple Haze,” by Jimi Hendrix and Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky.”
As a salute to Wass’s passion for music, firefighting crews in attendance requested the pulsing Jimi Hendrix rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
Craig LaBare’s friend and fellow pilot H.F. “Buzz” Schaffer struggled to keep his composure as he spoke at the memorial about a friend who saw the bright side of life.
“If you took Craig at face value, you missed Craig. He was deeper than that,” Schaffer said. “He was bright, athletic, kind, generous, considerate and faithful. Craig was what every mother wants her son to grow up to be and every father would be proud of.”
The Davis family sent a message from Bakersfield, Calif. and referred to the flight engineer as a “crusader for our Lord Jesus Christ.”
When he wasn’t flying or fishing, Davis was preaching. He ministered to inmates in prison and at juvenile detention facilities.
“His sole purpose in life was to tell someone about the one who transformed his life, Our Lord, Jesus Christ,” read the family’s note.
Investigators found Davis’ Bible intact at the crash site.
At the conclusion, a P-3 tanker, No. 00, flew low over the crowd of 350 and headed toward the mountains to the honor guard’s announcement, “Tanker 130 has gone West.”
“We will never know how many times we remained safe because of Steve’s efforts,” said Bobby Wartgow, who grew up with Wass and is deputy chief of emergency medical services for East Fork fire and paramedic districts.
“Who knows how many parents he spared from having to go through what Janet and Chet (Wass) are having to go through today?”
Gene Powers, co-owner of Hawkins and Powers Aviation Inc., which owned the tanker, said he considered Wass a son. Wass worked for Powers nearly half his life.
“I can never repay that wonderful crew for the job they were doing when that tragedy occurred,” Powers said. “I don’t think we can every make a job like this 100 percent safe, but I sure think we’re remiss if we don’t make that 100 percent our goal.”
Marion Barritt, a longtime glider pilot and former owner of Soar Minden, first met Wass when she came to Minden more than 20 years ago.
“I’ve known him from the time I arrived in Minden more than 20 years ago. He loved to fly gliders, tow planes, jets, anything he could get his hands on. He died doing what he loved. That doesn’t make any of us feel any less sad. Nor does it keep any of us from flying. If you are a pilot, you are always a pilot. We will miss him.”