Witnesses heard an “unusual noise” just before a KOMO-TV helicopter slammed to the ground near the Space Needle on Tuesday morning, killing a veteran Seattle photojournalist and the pilot as they were departing from the station’s roof, a federal safety investigator said hours after the crash.
No cause was immediately known.
“Right now, we’re looking at everything,” Dennis Hogenson, acting deputy chief of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Western Pacific Region, said during a news conference near the crash site.
The crash also left a driver seriously burned, after his car was struck by the falling aircraft and burst into flames. The helicopter came to a rest on Broad Street, just south of the Space Needle, breaking apart.
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Mayor Ed Murray went to the scene, underscoring the tragic events that put KOMO-TV in the rare position of both covering a major news story and dealing with the shocking blow.
Investigators are looking into the possibility the helicopter’s main rotor hit the tail, but all potential causes are under investigation, Hogenson said.
One witness described a “whining” sound from the engine as the helicopter left the helipad at Fisher Plaza, home of KOMO-TV, Hogenson said.
The aircraft had completed an earlier trip in the morning before landing at the helipad for refueling and taking off for a destination in Renton, he said. Witnesses said it was on the building for about 30 minutes before it took off and plummeted five stories.
KOMO identified those killed as Bill Strothman, 62, of Bothell, a longtime station photojournalist who more recently worked as a contractor for KOMO, and pilot Gary Pfitzner, 59, of Issaquah, also a contractor.
The injured man, Richard Newman, 38, of Seattle, was taken to Harborview Medical Center with second- and third-degree burns on up to 20 percent of his body and cuts and bruises to his face, said hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg.
Newman was in intensive care, where his condition was upgraded from critical to serious. Gregg said he suffered burns to his upper torso and a leg, and that he will need surgery.
A second car and a pickup were on fire when firefighters arrived, but it isn’t clear if they had been hit by the helicopter or ignited by the fuel, according to the Fire Department.
A woman in the second car walked away from the crash scene but later appeared at the Police Department’s West Precinct. The man in the pickup left the area before anyone could talk with him, a Fire Department spokesman said. Authorities later found him and he was uninjured.
Witnesses said fuel from the crashed helicopter ran down Broad Street, causing at least one person to jump out of her car and flee. The fuel burst into flames, sending thick clouds of black smoke into the air.
Chris McColgan, 26, who lives a couple of blocks west of the crash, said he was driving west on Broad Street when he stopped at the light on John Street, just two cars ahead of where the helicopter came down.
“It just blew up instantly,” said McColgan, who saw the helicopter fall from atop the KOMO building.
“The crazy thing is, the movies get it exactly right. It’s that big … It felt like a movie. It still feels like a movie.”
Kallie Meno, 27, of Seattle, was stopped at a red light on Broad Street when the helicopter crashed only a few car-lengths away. Fearing an explosion as debris rained down on her SUV, she flung open the door and ran.
“I knew there was a terrible crash, so I opened the door and bolted,” she said. “There was this terrible sound of the crunch of metal and steel. I thought I had been hit. That’s how loud it was.”
Mayor Murray, accompanied by Seattle Fire Chief Gregory Dean, offered condolences to KOMO staff at the crash site.
He then held a City Hall news conference, where he said city officials will look at the number of helicopter pads in proximity to the Space Needle and Seattle Center to see if there are safety issues that should be evaluated. Permits to build the pads now are only given for news and medical uses.
The NTSB’s Hogenson said the helicopter’s wreckage will be taken to a hangar in Auburn for reconstruction and evaluation. He said he expects the NTSB to have a preliminary report in about five days, but a complete investigation to determine the cause could take up to a year.
The Eurocopter AS350 helicopter was built in 2003 in Texas by Airbus Helicopters, formerly called American Eurocopter.
There is no record of problems with the helicopter that crashed, based on a search of Federal Aviation Administration service-difficulty reports.
However, that doesn’t mean there were no issues, just that none were reported. Also, the most current service-difficulty reports must be approved before they are posted online, creating a time lag.
The KOMO news helicopter that crashed was owned by Helicopters Inc. of St. Louis. That company and a related business, Sansone, also share an address in New Jersey, and the companies own and operate multiple helicopters.
In 2008, a news helicopter owned by Sansone and leased to Helicopters crashed outside of Houston. The commercial pilot and photojournalist were killed. The helicopter, with a pilot employed by Helicopters, was on its way to cover a breaking-news story.
In a written statement, Stephen Lieber, president of Helicopters, said, “On behalf of the Helicopters Inc. family, I would like to extend our deepest sympathies to the families of those lost and injured in Seattle today. We mourn their loss and suffering and our thoughts and prayers are with them.”
More NTSB investigators, along with complete records on the helicopter, were expected to arrive Tuesday night in Seattle. Hogenson said investigators were interviewing witnesses and examining surveillance videos of the crash.
The Space Needle, Chihuly Garden and Glass, and EMP Museum were closed for the day as a result of the crash, while the Seattle Center Monorail was taken out of service until police and fire officials later approved reopening the line.
KIRO-TV reported it has grounded its news helicopter for a flight safety check.
Newman, the injured man whose most recent address is listed in the Northgate neighborhood of Seattle, is a clinical trials project manager at Genelex, a company spokeswoman confirmed Tuesday. The genetic-testing laboratory is about a half-mile from the crash site, on Western Avenue near Denny Way.
He is also a part-time employee at Public Health — Seattle & King County, where he works as a disease intervention specialist, according to spokesman James Apa.
Newman does “exceptional work” in helping to reduce the impact of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases in the Seattle area, Public Health said in a statement.
“We’re very proud to have him on our team,” the statement said.
Kris Reynolds, an independent construction worker who keeps his supplies at a nearby office, said he was walking in around 7:40 a.m. when he saw the helicopter taking off out of the corner of his eye.
Reynolds said he turned to look and saw the helicopter rise a few feet in the air, tilt sideways and then lurch down over the edge of the building.
“Then the street went on fire and everything went crazy,” he said.
Daniel Gonzalez, a 22-year-old student at Seattle Central Community College whose father works in the Fisher Plaza building as a news producer at Univision, said he was smoking a cigarette outside the building when he heard the helicopter engine, then 15 seconds later heard a huge crash.
He said he heard the “ding, ding, ding” of a rotor hitting the ground and then, five seconds later, saw a fireball.
Andrew Williams said he was driving to work when the man he was carpooling with noticed something that didn’t look right — a helicopter just in front of them.
Williams said he was right behind the pickup that caught fire.
Debris came flying toward the car and he and his carpooler ducked, Williams said, adding that they drove up on the grass and then looked back.
Williams said he saw aviation fuel spew over the street and a man jump out of the pickup and take off running.
“I’m 62, and I’m lucky to be alive,” Williams said. “A lot of us are lucky to be alive today.”
Seattle Times staff reporters Mike Carter, Lynn Thompson, Paige Cornwell, Safiya Merchant, data editor Cheryl Phillips and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story.
Steve Miletich: 206-464-3302 or email@example.comOn Twitter @stevemiletich