BEND, Ore. (KOIN) — One of the two men who died during an explosion in a World War II-era tank owned the vehicle and was an enthusiastic collector of military equipment.
Friends of 51-year-old Steven Todd Preston say he bought the M18 Hellcat, which is technically a tank destroyer, several years ago and restored it. The M18s were used against German tanks during World War II.
He did the restoration at a shop near his home. 2 people worked for him full time, helping with the restoration, including the other victim, Austin Tyler Lee, age 22. Both Lee and Preston were from Oregon City, the Deschutes County Sheriff’s Office said.
Dennis Ripp, who is president of the Military Vehicle Collectors Club of Oregon, says he has known Preston for at least 15 years.
Ripp says Preston used the M18 for school fundraisers and other causes. He says Preston had recently done a commercial with the tank and also has appeared with it on the Discovery Channel.
Ripp says Preston had all of the legal paperwork needed for owning such a vehicle. Another friend, Kevin Lockwood, told KOIN 6 News Preston had completed paperwork to start a museum but he was still looking for a location.
Ripp says Preston left behind a wife and two children. When he wasn’t working on the tank restoration, he was operating his company, Sergeants Towing.
Oregon officials say the explosion that killed Preston and Lee happened while the two were sitting in the open turret of the tank. They were in central Oregon to help a film crew with a documentary. The crew was filming an armor piercing round going through a piece of steel. Preston and Lee were acting as the gunman and loader during the shoot.
The film crew has ties to the Flying Heritage Collection Museum in Everett, Wash. A statement on their website reads:
On Tuesday, a WWII-era M18 Hellcat tank destroyer being filmed for educational purposes misfired near Bend, Oregon. The accident tragically claimed two lives: the tank’s owner – who was a respected tank expert and a longtime partner and friend of Flying Heritage – and one of his colleagues.
The entire Flying Heritage team mourns this terrible loss and extends its deepest condolences to their families in this time of extraordinary grief.
Authorities said the explosion Tuesday afternoon east of Bend occurred inside a 1944 M18 Hellcat.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.