Longtime KOMO-TV news photographer Bill Strothman had been so busy with his own video-production company lately that he hadn’t gotten around to quitting his “little part-time job” shooting video from a news helicopter, his wife said.
Helicopter pilot Gary Pfitzner was also looking to retire — not from flying, but from his day job at the Boeing plant in Renton, where he worked for 36 years, according to his younger brother, Mark Pfitzner. A company liaison between Japan and Spain, Pfitzner also had several patents to his name, his brother said.
The two men were killed Tuesday morning when their helicopter burst into flames after crashing onto a city street near the Space Needle.
Strothman, 62, of Bothell, and Pfitzner, 59, of Issaquah, were working for the television station under contract.
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Both were Puget Sound natives who shared a love of flying.
Strothman’s first love, however, was film — then video — and he spent more than 30 years as a photographer for KOMO-TV before leaving in 2008, said his wife, Nora McDonnell Strothman. He passed his passion on to his two children through what he called “Poppa’s Classic Movie Nights,” when he’d screen films from the 1930s, she recalled. The couple’s son, Dan Strothman, also became a photographer at KOMO-TV, she said.
Known for his kindness and compassion, Bill Strothman covered plenty of tragedies. He was always sensitive to the people involved and “he’d never want to make a bad situation worse,” Nora Strothman said. “He was a really wonderful man and we were pretty crazy about each other.”
A gardener at the University of Washington, Nora Strothman was at work when she learned about the crash on the radio and rushed to the scene.
“I knew he was flying. I knew it was him as soon as they said the KOMO copter had crashed,” said Nora Strothman, who with her children spent much of the day at the TV station.
Skilled and comfortable behind the camera, Strothman was able to capture “deeply wonderful moments that would help us understand how deeply human we are,” said longtime colleague and friend Doug Tolmie, KOMO’s former head of special projects. “He was so comfortable behind the camera and knew that was a tool that allowed him to see things in ways the rest of us couldn’t.”
Strothman started his own video-production company, Glass Mountain Video Productions, and was active in his church, First Lutheran Church in Bothell. He continued to work as a freelance photographer for KOMO, according to the station.
It was Strothman’s understanding of the craft of storytelling that made him an in-demand photographer.
“There are just very few people like Bill,” Tolmie said. “He was genuinely interested in the subjects of a story. He is a kind and gentle man — Bill was always smiling, and he had tremendous empathy for the folks we were dealing with.
“Bill had that rare ability, so people would trust him,” he said. “Bill was a nice guy, a truly nice guy, so people felt secure being around him.”
Randy Carnell, chief photographer for KOMO-TV, has known Strothman for 24 years.
“He was a fantastic co-worker and teammate,” Carnell said. “He was a true journalist. He never let anything get in the way of telling the truth.”
Pfitzner took up flying about 15 years ago, became an instructor and then applied to fly news helicopters, piloting for several Seattle TV stations, his brother said.
“He loved having adventures,” said Mark Pfitzner. And he loved flying news helicopters so much, he was willing to wake up at 3:30 every morning and go to bed at 8:30 every night to do it, his brother said.
“He was also a very safe pilot,” said former colleague Clark Stahl, who flew KIRO-TV’s Chopper 7 for 30 years. “I sat by him at the hangar for literally hours on end, and I was always struck by his dedication to the aviation profession.”
Stahl said Pfitzner was an experienced pilot of the type of helicopter that crashed Tuesday.
Raised in Des Moines and Renton, Pfitzner was the eldest of seven children in a tight-knit family. He was also a husband and a father of two adult children.
“He always had a smile on his face,” KOMO-TV news anchor and reporter Molly Shen said of Pfitzner on air Tuesday. “He loved what he did, loved to be able to fly and be up there above the city and see things from a perspective that most of us don’t get to see.”
Mark Pfitzner said his brother used to run errands by helicopter and picked him up for flights to their mother’s house in Snohomish.
“He called it an emergency pie run,” said Mark Pfitzner. “He didn’t want that pie to go to waste.”
Seattle Times staff reporters Jack Broom, Lewis Kamb and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.