SEATTLE, Wash.-- A pilot and photographer were killed when a KOMO news helicopter crashed on top of three vehicles outside Seattle Center Tuesday morning and caught fire. A third person was taken to the hospital in critical condition, but was later upgraded to serious condition.
The crash happened around 7:45 a.m. in the 400 block of Broad Street next to Fisher Plaza, which is home to KOMO.
The photographer was identified as Bill Strothman, who worked for several years at KOMO. The pilot was identified as Gary Pfitzner.
Strothman won 13 Emmys and worked for KOMO from 1979-2008, but has been employed by Helicopters, Inc. since 2008. Strothman's son, Dan, works at KOMO as a photographer.
"Our family is grief stricken and in shock in the wake of the horrible tragedy that claimed the lives of Bill Strothman and Gary Pfitzner this morning," read a Strothman family statement. "Bill was a great man, a kind soul, a devoted husband, a loving father and brother. He was a friend to everyone who knew him. Bill was a talented photographer who was a beloved part of the KOMO family for more than 30 years. We are overwhelmed by the outpouring of support and condolences from the community."
The helicopter was being used in a joint partnership between KOMO and KREM 2's sister station KING 5. The helicopter was a Eurostar AS350-B2. Eurostar is an Airbus company. The aircraft was being operated by Helicopters, Inc. through a lease agreement with KOMO News. The company is based in St. Louis, MO and, according to its website, employs 140 full-time pilots and mechanics nationwide and flies more than 45,000 hours every year.
Helicopters Inc. President Stephen Lieber issued a statement Tuesday afternoon, saying "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. We will cooperate fully and completely with the National Transportation Safety Board and provide to it whatever information it wants in order to assist it in its work in determining what happened. So that we do not interfere with its work, we will not have any further comment except to say that we are saddened and deeply affected by this tragedy."
KOMO News said the copter was apparently coming in for a landing on its rooftop Tuesday morning when it possibly hit the side of the building and went down, hitting several vehicles on Broad Street. The copter and cars exploded in flames.
Bo Bain, a construction worker, said he saw the helicopter land and stay on the pad for about a minute or two.
“When he went to take back off, the sound of the helicopter changed kind of drastically and I looked and the helicopter was almost immediately pitched sideways and off balance and he kind of nose-dove over the trees and clipped the top of the trees and crashed on the other side of the street,” said Bain.
NTSB Deputy Regional Chief Dennis Hogenson said the helicopter had just arrived from Covington and landed to refuel. It was taking off for Renton when, witnesses said, the helicopter made an unusal "whining" noise, turned counter-clockwise and crashed.
Hogenson said investigators would look at several factors, including the helicopter itself, the pilot and the weather. He said it would take about five days for a preliminary report on the crash to be released.
When firefighters arrived, they found the helicopter, two cars and a pickup truck on fire, along with a huge cloud of black smoke, fire department spokesman Kyle Moore said.
"Not only were the cars on fire, the fuel running down the street was on fire," Moore told reporters at the scene.
Firefighters stopped the burning fuel from entering the sewer.
The Seattle Fire Department reported two people were pronounced dead on arrival.
A third person, Richard Newman, 38, was at Harborview Medical Center in serious condition after the helicopter landed on his car. Spokeswoman Susan Gregg said he had second- and third-degree burns on up to 20 percent of his body -- on his back and arms. He also had cuts on his head and a broken rib. He was sedated in the intensive care unit and will need surgeries for the burns, but not immediately.
A man and a woman who were in the other vehicles were seen walking away from the scene. The woman was being checked out, but police were looking for the man from the pickup truck to make sure he was okay. The Seattle Fire Dept. later tweeted the man was found and was not injured.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee released the following statement in the wake of the tragedy:
“This morning two members of the KOMO news family were killed in a tragic crash. Trudi and I send our condolences to their families and to the men and women at KOMO who, despite the personal impacts of this tragedy, have been reporting on this loss with impressive professionalism and grace. Our hearts go out to you. I know the people of Seattle – and the people of Washington – are keeping you in their thoughts. We also hope for the best for those injured.”
In a news conference Tuesday afternoon, Mayor Ed Murray said the city would reconsider its policies as they relate to helicopters.
Drivers were being told to avoid the area. The investigation was expected to last several hours. The Space Needle and Experience Music Project were closed for the day out of respect for those killed.
The FAA and NTSB planned to use recordings of air traffic communication to help determine what caused the crash.
KIRO 7, another news station in Seattle, grounded its helicopter, pending a thorough review of flight safety, according to news director Bob Jordan’s post on Twitter.