News helicopter crashes near Seattle Space Needle, killing 2

The Seattle TimesMarch 18, 2014 

— A veteran Seattle photojournalist and a pilot were killed Tuesday morning when a KOMO-TV helicopter crashed onto a street just south of the Space Needle. A driver whose car was struck was critically injured when his car exploded in a fireball.

KOMO-TV identified one of those killed as Bill Strothman, 62, of Bothell, Wash., a longtime station photographer who worked as a contractor for KOMO. The station identified the pilot as Gary Pfitzner, 59, of Issaquah, Wash., 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.”

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 critically injured man, 38, was taken to Harborview Medical Center, with burns over 15-20 percent of his body, according Harborview. His family is coming down from Bellingham, Wash.

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.

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.”

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 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.

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.

The National Transportation Safety Board is on the scene to investigate the crash, according to Seattle police. The bodies of the two dead men were removed from the crash scene around 11 a.m.

Helicopters Inc., a St. Louis-based company, said it owns the aircraft that crashed. A company representative said they will soon release a statement.

According to a news report, the helicopter was a temporary chopper, used jointly with KING-TV in a shared arrangement.

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.

Looking west from Fifth Avenue and Broad Street, he could see a river of water and foam and beyond that the burned-out wreckage of a car, truck and debris spread across the street.

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.

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 with 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, adding 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.”

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 accident 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.

(Staff reporters Mike Carter and Lynn Thompson and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this report.)

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