The family of Steve Preston, an Oregon City towing company owner killed outside Bend in 2015 when a cannon shell misfired in his World War II-era tank, is suing the Terrebonne contractor who supplied powder for the shell.
Rachel Preston is seeking $12.8 million from Chuck Hegele — a 69-year-old businessman and Vietnam veteran who restores historic artillery pieces.
It’s the second lawsuit this year concerning the blast that killed Preston, 51, and a 22-year-old assistant, Austin Lee. Lee’s estate in February filed a federal wrongful death action against many of the parties connected to the incident, including Hegele, Preston’s estate, and National Wings and Armor Foundation.
The two men were killed inside Preston’s 1944 M-18 Hellcat — a tank destroyer he named after his wife — on Oct. 27, 2015, at a gun range east of Bend. They were attempting to fire a round when it exploded, killing Lee instantly and inflicting mortal wounds on Preston, who survived for 27 minutes.
According to the complaint, filed this month in Deschutes County Circuit Court, Preston had contracted with Hegele to supply and supervise the use of specialty ammunition for a firing demonstration being filmed for the Flying Heritage & Combat Armor Museum in Everett, Washington.
The suit states that as a licensed munitions professional, Hegele needed to provide training and instruction on the day of the filming. It states Hegele knew the propellant used in the blast was “quite old” but used it anyway.
One reason for the high damages sought is because Preston survived the explosion for 27 minutes, said the Preston family’s attorney, Tim Williams. The suit states he suffered “imminent fear of death” in his last moments alive.
“He knew he was going to die,” Williams told The Bulletin.
At the time of the incident, Hegele was a collector of old artillery pieces with a “manufacturing of high explosives” license from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. He was one of a handful of U.S. civilians authorized to oversee explosions and would regularly organize cannon shoots showing off his collection of historic artillery pieces. Usually, he’d bring out old cars and buses for target practice.
Preston had a license to own his tank, but not the ATF license to hold explosive powder, which is why he needed a person in Hegele’s position to fire his tank.
Hegele estimated Preston brought his Hellcat to Bend four or five times before his death.
The Bulletin even wrote about Preston and Hegele firing for the benefit of a TV crew with a Discovery Channel program called “G.I. Dough.”
In those instances, Hegele loaded the shells. But on the day of the accident, Preston was trying to shoot shells through 4-inch steel targets that mimicked materials used in tanks in World War II. And the shells were loaded by Preston’s young assistants.
Hegele told The Bulletin on Thursday that he would have loaded them, but he’d recently undergone shoulder surgery and his arm was in a sling.
The Heritage museum had wanted slow-motion footage of shells penetrating steel armor to be used in informational kiosks at the museum. The project was funded by Vulcan Productions, headed by late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
About 3:08 p.m. on Oct. 27, 2015, Preston and his helpers were dressed in replica tank crew uniforms. They’d successfully fired about eight rounds before breaking for lunch.
The explosion that killed Lee and Preston blew out the tank’s breech block — the metal piece that closes the opening at the back of a barrel — into the tank.
Lee was killed instantly by “blunt force trauma.” Preston suffered soft tissue damage to his body and a major concussive injury to his chest and abdomen resulting in “massive” internal bleeding, according to the suit.
Hegele has been served with the complaint and has yet to formally respond, but he told The Bulletin that Preston is responsible for his own death.
“When he came out there that day, he was in a hurry, and he just made some bad mistakes,” Hegele said. “That day, he was doing all kinds of things wrong.”
Those mistakes include overloading the shell with propellant by half a pound.
“I told him, ‘If you put one more ounce in there, you’re going to blow yourself up,’” Hegele said. “He put 8 more ounces in.”
Hegele said he told Preston to use lead bullets, which are historically appropriate, and not steel, which aren’t.
He also suspects Preston altered the breech block of his tank, which had once been “de-militarized” but was restored by Preston to working order.
Hegele said he was concerned enough with Preston’s plan before filming, he made him take out an additional insurance policy.
“Steve loved attention,” Hegele said. “That’s what killed him.”
Hegele expects his insurance companies will settle with Preston’s estate, but for far less than the $12.8 million sought.
Deschutes County District Attorney John Hummel announced in August 2016 he would not bring charges.
“We followed the evidence where it led, and at the end of the day, we do not know the cause of this explosion,” Hummel said at the time.
Deputies from the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office, which led the investigation, had sought a reason for the explosion. Experts in military tanks, ammunition and metallurgy, including the FBI Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia, were consulted but could not determine the primary cause of the explosion, Hummel said.
Lee was the oldest of four brothers and attended Oregon City High School. He was an avid history buff who belonged to a unit of World War II re-enactors.
— Reporter: 541-383-0325, firstname.lastname@example.org