After Cal Fire Captain Stacy Hamilton performed his first hoist rescue he approached his friend, Cal Fire Captain John Williamson, and jokingly said, “Am I in the club now?”
Despite working for seven years as a senior instructor in the state rescue program, Hamilton didn’t find himself perched on the skid of a Cal Fire helicopter during a live rescue — 110 feet above a victim trapped in the Mokelumne River canyon near the Bear Valley ski resort — until this past March.
“He’s very good at what he does, and he’s done this several hundred times in training,” Williamson, 42, said. “He knew we were limited on time so we just rolled straight into it. It was complete professionalism.”
Andrew Macritchie, the Cal Fire helicopter pilot who brought Hamilton and the rescue team out to the location, said a frozen ice-wind was blowing the craft sideways during the search.
When the victim was spotted after 45 minutes, Hamilton immediately went to work.
Hamilton was attached with a harness to an “angel wing” inside the helicopter and lowered a rescuer down to the victim with a capture device.
Both were extracted at the same time, successfully, and without injuries.
“He talked about that rescue for about a week,” Williamson said.
It was Hamilton’s turn to flip the playbook on his coworkers, who used to tease him relentlessly about not performing a live rescue so late in his storied career.
“He was such a good natured guy who rolled with punches,” Macritchie, 57, said. “I feel privileged that was able to be with Stacy on that rescue.”
Hamilton, 49, was found dead on Saturday near Snelling in Merced County in what is suspected to be an accidental single-vehicle collision.
Since the news dropped at Columbia Air Attack Base — where Hamilton was stationed since 2010, first as a fire captain in the Columbia Helitack program and then as an air tactical group supervisor on the tactical OV-10 Bronco, the AA 440 — his absence has been glaring.
“Some days we’re just numb. People are just processing things. We kind of go into some funny stories about him or remember him playing volleyball here. It's ups and downs,” Williamson said.
In the past week, Williamson was tasked with cleaning out Hamilton’s lockers, filled with family mementos and a catalogue of more than 25-years of firefighting service.
There were photographs: of his two teenage sons, Ian, 18, and Logan, 15; Hamilton with the Redding Hotshots, and Hamilton as a United States Forest Service captain on Copter 520 in the Sierra National Forest, Williamson said.
There were trinkets: a helmet bag embroidered with Hamilton’s name tag, flight gloves, a stack of Smokey the Bear pocket calendars and California Region 5 Smokejumper guides.
There were the things Hamilton cherished most: including cards written to him from his wife, Katie, and other family members.
“There was his whole career piled into two lockers. That's kind of the fire way,” Williamson said. “It was harder than I thought to go through that and pull it together.”
During late nights cooking and talking at the base, Hamilton spent much of his time sharing about his family, said Macritchie, a 14-year Cal Fire employee stationed at Columbia Air Attack base for seven years.
“I’m one of the older guys here and so was Stacy. We lived far away, so we were close in a personal way because of how much time we spent with each other,” Macritchie said. “I know him as a family man. He loved his kids and he loved his wife. They were most important to him.”
Hamilton lived in Shaver Lake with his family. According to a Go-Fund-Me page for Hamilton’s memorial fund, his son Ian plans to attend the University of Alabama, Huntsville, to study aerospace engineering in the fall.
Hamilton was always full of stories, whether it was about skiing (his favorite pastime) up at Dodge Ridge, at Lake Tahoe and in Utah, or about the firefighting experiences which earned him the title as an aviation expert, said Williamson, a 21-year Cal Fire employee assigned to the Columbia Air Attack base since 2010.
“We would always be swapping stories about where the best places to ski were,” he said.
Williamson, a former shift partner with Hamilton, said Hamilton distinguished himself as a skilled aviator and as a respected leader who coordinated numerous fire suppression incidents.
“He just knew where to put retardant. Many times he created avenues for people and did things that eliminated potential issues, as far as keeping people out of danger and help the people on the ground,” Williamson said.
Josh White, Cal Fire Tuolumne-Calaveras Unit Chief, called Hamilton “a force to be reckoned with.”
“It leaves a huge hole in that depth of knowledge he brought to the table.” White said. “I’m going to miss that. He had a common sense approach to solution identification.”
Underneath his on-the-job professionalism was a humor that made him endearing, Williamson added.
Around 2012, Hamilton and a six-man crew were dropped on a rock bar near the American River, south of Auburn, to attack a fire. The crew was forced to walk 15 yards across the slow moving river — soaking themselves to above the waist — to reach the incident command.
When they arrived, Hamilton and the crew were told the fire was covered. They set out, back across the river again.
Williamson, dry and waiting in the helicopter, said Hamilton told him upon their return, “well, that was classic.”
“He was very witty with his humor. He could sprinkle sarcasm when the timing of it was pretty good,” Williamson said.
That kind of delivery even seeped into his teaching as a senior instructor for the state rescue program, Williamson added.
“He would start off really technical, but then he would finish the whole delivery with some kind of joke and get loose and candid in the end,” he said.
Lyndel James, manager for Boice Funeral Home in Clovis, said between 900 and 1,000 people were expected at Hamilton’s celebration of life ceremony on Monday at 11 a.m. at the Clovis Hills Community Church.
James said the memorial would be open to the public.
Seth Brown, battalion chief for Cal Fire in Fresno County, said a “sea of blue” — a contingent of uniformed Cal Fire personnel — will be set up outside the church, creating a procession line for Hamilton’s family and visiting dignitaries. The Cal Fire employees will be flanked by Cal Fire engines and a helicopter outside of the church.
According to a Cal Fire press release, outside agency honor guards were invited to participate in the ceremony.
The order of operations and list of speakers was not being released at this time by request of the family, Brown said.
James said, tentatively, three people would make statements and a representative of the California Governor’s Office may be in attendance.
The celebration of life would be directed by the church pastor with assistance from the Cal Fire chaplain.
Brown said Cal Fire planned to live stream the service online.
California Highway Patrol - Merced Area Public Information Officer Eric Zuniga said investigators are waiting until after the memorial to conduct follow-up interviews into the accident, which occurred on Snelling Road in Merced County on Saturday.
Foul play was not suspected, he said.
“It’s a sensitive matter. We have to handle it with as much respect for the family and for Captain Hamilton as much as possible,” Zuniga said.
Zuniga said it was not uncommon to wait until after a memorial to continue with the investigation if no foul play was suspected.
The CHP reported Hamilton was driving a 2004 Subaru Outback at about 2:20 a.m. in Snelling on Saturday. A report was made that the vehicle had gone off the road and came to rest on it's side.
A CHP officer found the car 20 feet from the roadway.
Investigators have not spoken to family members or coworkers yet, but plan to create a reverse timeline of the accident.
The CHP has not received autopsy results or a toxicology report from the Merced County Coroner, though alcohol or drug use is not suspected.
“We eventually will, at one point, continue our investigation,” Zuniga said.