Six people are confirmed dead after a two-vehicle crash at about 9 p.m. Thursday 10 miles east of Helena on Highway 12, Montana Highway Patrol Capt. Gary Becker said.
"We had a fire truck that was going eastbound on U.S. 12 and a pickup that was traveling westbound on U.S. 12 and at some point the two of them came together," he said.
"Both of them were engulfed in flames."
Becker said there was only one occupant in the fire truck at the time of the crash but that the pickup contained five passengers: a Helena couple and their three children.
Jefferson County Undersheriff Mike Johnson said three of the passengers in the pickup were under the age of 18 but said he would not release the names of the family until their identities were confirmed.
"The deceased have been sent to the state crime lab for positive identification," he said, noting he would probably know by Monday afternoon.
Whether the six victims were killed on impact or as a result of the fire is still to be determined, Johnson said.
The driver and sole occupant of the fire truck, was Three Forks Fire Chief Todd Rummel, who was heading back to Three Forks in a fire engine that had been in Helena for repairs.
"Everybody was just in shock," said Brad Eastty, a firefighter and public information officer with the Three Forks Fire Department.
"Obviously there's a wide range of emotions (in the station)," he said. "Todd was pretty central to the operations here at Three Forks fire."
He said Assistant Chief Keith Aune has stepped into the position of chief.
As word spread about Rummel's death, the Three Forks community has rallied around the fire department, Eastty said.
"Certainly we've gotten everybody from the local paper to the businesses and the board members, just a myriad of folks calling up for support saying 'What can I do?'"
"This is a small community," Eastty said. "Everyone is coming together."
Eastty said a memorial service is planned to honor Rummel on Wednesday June 25 at noon in the Three Forks High School gymnasium.
Becker said the Montana Highway Patrol, in addition to the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office is still investigating the possible contributing factors and causes of the fiery crash.
"You've got fuel tanks on the fire truck, you've got fuel tanks on the pickup," he said. "All of that would've been enough to start a car fire.
"That's part of the puzzle that we're trying to piece together," he said.
Becker said Highway 12 was shut down around 8:45 last night and, as of 7:30 this morning, had not yet been reopened.
He said a crash with this many fatalities is extremely rare.
"We've had doubles and triples," he said. "I don't recall having one where we had six people killed in one crash."
Bob Gleich, chief deputy with the Jefferson County Sheriff's Office described the scene as an “inferno,” and officials were heard over a police scanner saying witnesses saw a mushroom cloud when the two vehicles collided.
Officials planned to call a wrecker service to “try to separate what’s out there,” he said.
“It literally was just all melted together,” he said.
The Montana Highway Patrol is investigating the crash, Gleich said, and the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office is handling the death investigation.
Check helenair.com during the day for updates as more details about the collision emerge.