It was the worst of days for KOMO-TV employees who witnessed the immediate aftermath of a helicopter crash that killed two contract employees, including one who had been a longtime staff photographer, and seriously injured a third man on the ground.
Station employees were working at their desks at Fisher Plaza at about 7:40 a.m. when they heard tree branches snapping, then car horns sounding, said longtime anchor Dan Lewis. They rushed to their office windows and watched in horror as a helicopter carrying two of their colleagues burned after crashing seconds before. Reporter Kelly Koopmans reported on air that explosions from the helicopter continued 20 minutes after the crash.
Corwin Haeck, a KOMO news radio reporter, said he heard the crash from the KOMO newsroom, grabbed his microphone and recorder, and rushed down to the street. “I couldn’t believe what I was seeing in front of my eyes. Our own news chopper in a ball of fire.”
A short time later, Haeck saw a man emerge from one of the damaged vehicles and collapse in the street.
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That man, Richard Newman, 38, of Seattle, is being treated for severe burns. The victims who died in the helicopter have been identified as Bill Strothman, 62, who had been a longtime station photographer before working as a contractor, and contract pilot Gary Pfitzner, 59.
“This is something that happened to our family,” Haeck said, adding that KOMO staffers were struggling to “put our emotions on hold long enough to get and report the story.”
Haeck, who has worked at KOMO for 10 years but did not know the victims, said the newsroom was distraught.
“Everybody’s broken up. These are our colleagues,” he said. “These are people that put themselves in danger every day.”
Despite the emotions of the morning, Haeck said the broadcast journalists jumped into action immediately after seeing the crash.
“Every day we come to work and understand something tragic could happen, and it’s our job to report it,” he said. “This is no different.”
Lewis said he was about to board a plane for Washington, D.C., where he had a date to interview President Obama. He rushed back to the KOMO newsroom, where he and co-anchor Eric Johnson continued to report live on the tragedy.
Lewis’ tone veered from straight-on commentary, as he discussed the likely progress of an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, to a voice that threatened to break as he reported the death of his colleagues. “This is a television station that’s in a state of shock,” he said.
Johnson said that “we are a TV station that’s in mourning. It’s a crushing and devastating day.”
The coming and going of the news helicopter from the roof of the building had been a routine sound for KOMO employees, Lewis said. But this time, Johnson added, employees heard a strange sound that didn’t seem right just before the crash.
Television journalists witness tragedies every day, Lewis said, but this one struck at the heart of the KOMO “family.” That emotional connection was visible on the scene, as the station’s reporters broke into tears between their live reports.
Denise Whitaker, a KOMO reporter, said on air that KOMO employees were comforted by bystanders who stopped as they passed the scene of the accident and offered condolences. Expressions of sympathy also streamed in via social media.
For typically dispassionate journalists, such personal ties to a story are rare.
“Newspeople try to put tragedy in a framework of news and information, to keep it at arm’s length,” said Doug Underwood, a UW communications professor and author of “Chronicling Trauma: Journalists and Writers on Violence and Loss.” They distance themselves by telling themselves, “These are bad things that happen to other people,” he said.
“What a lot of research shows is that this isn’t necessarily a strategy that works, and that the effect of trauma can come out in unexpected ways,” said Underwood, a former Seattle Times staffer. They might have immediate problems — flashbacks, insomnia, panic attacks — or problems that manifest later, such as deteriorating family relationships and substance abuse.
News organizations can help by knowing the signs of trauma and providing support for those who are suffering, he said.
For now, KOMO employees are trying to focus on any positives they can find in this tragedy that hit so close to home.
Lewis pointed out that the crash could have been much worse: “If this had been a summer day when the tourists were out, it would have magnified the tragedy …”
And Johnson fondly remembered the pilot he saw every day. “When it was a nice day he would say, ‘It’s a beautiful day. I have the best job in the world when it’s a beautiful day.’ ”
Staff reporters Brian M. Rosenthal and Jack Broom contributed to this report.