The chopper appeared to have fallen to the street as it attempted
to take off from a helipad at the top of a television news station,
Seattle Fire Department spokesman Kyle Moore told reporters.
Witnesses reported an "unusual noise" coming from the helicopter
during its departure.
Two people were found dead in the wreckage of the helicopter when
emergency responders arrived at the scene, while the occupants of
three vehicles that caught fire managed to escape, Moore said. One
person was in critical condition.
Television station KOMO, an ABC affiliate, said the aircraft was one
of its helicopters. Photos posted online by the station showed
flames and smoke rising from cars at the scene after the crash.
"I saw it falling. It was coming down head first," said Carmen
Romero, who had been walking to catch a bus when the crash happened.
"It hit the car. Then flames went up."
Romero said she saw a man engulfed in flames emerge from one of the
three vehicles, waving his arms as he ran.
The morning crash, which left burning helicopter fuel streaming down
the road and debris strewn on grass at the base of the Space Needle,
occurred in a tourist area that also hosts a children's museum and
the Pacific Science Center. The weather was overcast at the time,
with little wind.
After the fire was extinguished, the charred vehicles with their
windows blown out remained in the street, which was covered in
fire-retardant foam. The tail of the chopper was several yards from
its main frame.
The two people killed were pilot 59-year-old Gary Pfitzner, who
worked for a company that operated the helicopter for the TV
station, and photographer Bill Strothman, 62, who shot video for
KOMO but had retired from the company and worked as a freelancer,
according to KOMO.
"At times like this we are reminded that the media, like many of us,
are also public servants," said Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who visited
Strothman's adult children after their father's death.
U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, said
in a statement that the crash was "an unimaginable loss for
Seattle's journalism community."
Of the people who were in the vehicles that burned in the crash, a
man in his late 30s who escaped his car was hospitalized.
The fire department said he was initially listed in critical
condition, but a hospital spokeswoman later said he had been
upgraded to serious condition with burns over 20 percent of his
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A woman who escaped a second car that burned after the crash had
made her way to a police station and appeared to be in good shape,
and the driver of a pickup truck scorched at the scene walked away
unharmed, officials said.
City officials will review regulations for helipads, the mayor said.
The Space Needle and the Seattle Monorail, which runs near the crash
scene and connects a downtown shopping mall to the Seattle Center
tourist complex, were shut down to prevent people from looking down
at the bodies, Murray said.
The National Transportation Safety Board, whose investigators were
at the scene, planned to clear the wreckage by Tuesday evening and
issue a preliminary report in five days, said Dennis Hogenson,
acting deputy NTSB chief for the western Pacific region.
Witnesses reported hearing an "unusual noise" coming from the
helicopter during its departure, with one person saying the engine
sounded as if it were "whining," and investigators were looking into
whether the main rotor may have clipped the tail, Hogenson said.
"We're looking at the environment, the weather, the pilot, the
operators in the helicopter, as well as the helicopter itself, as
well as the background of all of the above," he said.
The helicopter, a 2003 Eurocopter AS350, appeared to have rotated
counterclockwise before it crashed, he said. He added that the
helicopter had been flown on Tuesday morning and was brought back to
the downtown area to refuel.
After less than 30 minutes on the helipad, the pilot attempted the
ill-fated takeoff, Hogenson said.
(Additional reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle, Jonathan
Kaminsky in Olympia, Wash.; writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; editing by
Cynthia Johnston, Mohammad Zargham and Amanda Kwan)
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