2 killed when news helicopter crashes near Space Needle

The Seattle TimesMarch 18, 2014 

Witnesses heard an "unusual noise" just before a KOMO-TV helicopter crashed this morning, killing a veteran Seattle photojournalist and the pilot, a federal safety investigator said at a news briefing this afternoon.

Investigators are looking into the possibility that the helicopter’s main rotor hit the tail, but all potential causes are under investigation in the 7:40 a.m. crash, said Dennis Hogenson, acting deputy chief of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Western Pacific Region.

One witness described a “whining” sound from the engine as the helicopter departed the helipad at Fisher Plaza, home of KOMO-TV, Hogenson said.

Hogenson said the aircraft had been on an earlier trip in the morning before landing at the helipad for refueling and taking off for a destination in Renton, Hogenson said.

The helicopter crashed onto a street outside Fisher Plaza, just south of the Space Needle. A driver whose car was struck was injured when his car exploded in a fireball.

KOMO-TV identified those killed as Bill Strothman, 62, of Bothell, a longtime station photographer who worked as a contractor for KOMO, and pilot Gary Pfitzner, 59, of Issaquah, also a contractor.

Strothman was "one of Seattle’s finest television news photographers," said Peter Mongilo, a KOMO-TV photographer. "He respected his profession. He respected the people he covered and photography was his passion."

Strothman was someone "who really knew how his pictures could tell a million words," news anchor Dan Lewis said on the air. "He was just a true gentleman."

"We're going to miss you guys. And thanks so much for all that you gave to us," Lewis said, choking up.

The helicopter, which apparently was taking off around 7:40 a.m., dropped to the ground, landing on the car that burst into flames on Broad Street. 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.

The injured man, 38-year-old Richard Newman, was taken to Harborview Medical Center with second- and third-degree burns covering up to 20 percent of his body, said hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg. He was in intensive care, but his condition was upgraded from critical to serious. Gregg said the man’s burns will require surgery.

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, Moore said. Authorities later found him, and he was uninjured, according to the fire department.

Eyewitnesses told KOMO Radio that 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 flame, sending thick clouds of black smoke into the air near the Space Needle.

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 the helipad 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.”

Under investigation

Seattle Mayor Ed Murray visited the crash scene Tuesday morning and offered condolences to KOMO staff, then went to City Hall for a news conference.

He said the city will look at number of helicopter pads in proximity to the Space Needle and Seattle Center to see if there are safety issues that should be re-evaluated. Permits now are only given for news and medical uses.

The NTSB’s Hogenson said the copter’s wreckage will be taken to a hangar in Auburn for reconstruction and evaluation. He said he expect 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 helicopter was built in 2003 in Texas by Airbus Helicopters, formerly called American Eurocopter.

More NTSB investigators, with complete records on the helicopter in hand, are expected to arrive in Seattle tonight. Hogenson said investigators are interviewing witnesses and examining surveillance videos of the crash.

Witnesses said it landed on the Fisher Plaza building to refuel and was likely on the building no more than 30 minutes before it took off and crashed.

The two bodies were removed from the crash scene around 11 a.m.

"A true journalist"

Randy Carnell, chief photographer for KOMO-TV, has known Strothman for 24 years. “He was a fantastic friend, and family man,” Carnell said. "He loved his wife and son and daughter more than anything.

"He was a fantastic co-worker and teammate. He was a true journalist. He never let anything get in the way of telling the truth."

Carnell said Strothman was active in his Lutheran church and made overseas missions and also did video projects for the church. Strothman’s son, Dan, is a news photographer at KOMO.

Carnell says the regular KOMO helicopter is being worked on as part of an agreement with KING-TV to share the aircraft. KOMO has been using this current chopper on a temporary basis for about a month.

Police closed streets in the area. The smell of fuel and fire was still in the air around Seattle Center hours after the crash.

“It’s sad, it’s just so sad,” said one man who works near the crash site but didn’t want to be identified.

The Space Needle, Chihuly Garden and Glass and EMP Museum were closed as a result of the crash. Pacific Science Center is normally closed on Tuesdays.

The Monorail was taken out of service until Seattle police and fire approved reopening the line.

Deaths in the family

KOMO-TV found itself in the extraordinary situation of covering a major news story while dealing with a tragedy tied to its news operation.

KOMO staff members reported that the fireball from the crashed copter could be seen from their newsroom. They said that an hour after the crash, staff members remained dazed, some sitting at their desks with their heads in their hands.

Kelly Koopmans, reporter-anchor for KOMO-TV, said she was sitting at her desk, about 75 yards from the crash scene, and first heard a loud rumble that she thought might be coming from a nearby construction site.

But the noise continued increasing. “It was so loud and so close, you had to know something had gone terribly, terribly wrong,” she said.

Rushing to the window, she saw an explosion of billowing flames and a thick plume of black smoke streaming up alongside the Space Needle.

Witnesses "lucky to be alive"

Kris Reynolds, an independent construction worker who keeps his supplies at an nearby office, said he was walking in when he saw the helicopter taking off out of the corner of his eye.

“Oh, look, the helicopter’s taking off again,” he said he thought.

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.

Five seconds later, he said, he saw a fireball rise from the street.

“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.

The helicopter landed in the right lane of Broad Street, near the curb, between the red car and silver pickup, Gonzalez said.

He saw a man emerge from the red car, on fire.

Andrew Williams said he was driving to work at the port 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 silver pickup.

Debris came flying toward the car and he and his carpooler ducked, Williams said, addling 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.

He said, "I’m 62, and I’m lucky to be alive. A lot of us are lucky to be alive today."

"Unacceptably high" accident rate

KIRO-TV reported it has grounded its news helicopter for a flight safety check.

Addressing the growing use of helicopters and their “unique flight characteristics” is the NTSB’s highest priority in 2014, according to the agency’s website.

The agency said the civil helicopter industry has seen “overwhelming growth and demand” for emergency medical services, law enforcement and electronic news gathering.

Sick and dying patients, police emergencies and competitive news gathering create “unique challenges,” not the least of which is pressure on the helicopter operators to fly in difficult conditions, according to the NTSB.

“These and other operation have led to an unacceptably high number of helicopter accidents,” the NTSB says in a fact sheet. “Since 2004, more than 1,600 accidents occurred involving helicopters” used as air ambulances, search and rescue and other civil purposes. More than 500 people have died in those crashes, the NTSB said.

The Associated Press and Seattle Times staff reporters Mike Carter, Lynn Thompson, Safiya Merchant and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story.

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