SEATTLE — A television news helicopter had just taken off from its rooftop perch Tuesday morning when it came crashing down into the street and exploded in flames, killing the pilot and an Emmy-Award-winning photojournalist on board as horrified employees watched from office windows.
Richard Newman, 38, whose car caught fire after the helicopter crashed, was hospitalized in serious condition with burns on up to 20% of his body, news reports said. A man and a woman escaped unharmed from their nearby vehicles. KOMO-TV identified the dead as pilot Gary Pfitzner and photojournalist Bill Strothman.
The crash near the Space Needle in downtown Seattle sent up huge flames and dense smoke. Several witnesses told investigators they heard "unusual" noises that sounded like an engine "whining" as the helicopter took off from a quick refueling, a National Transportation Safety Board official said.
Kristopher Reynolds, who was working on a construction job on the 22nd floor of a nearby building, said he saw the helicopter take off about 7:50 a.m. He described seeing it "rise 4 feet, then lift up, go counter-clockwise on a tilt." He said it appeared the aircraft was trying to correct itself.
"It tried to come back and land," Reynolds said, but it then went into "a side dive."
"The next thing I know it hit the ground and there was a ball of fire," he said.
NTSB officials and Federal Aviation Administration officials plan to search the helicopter's remains for mechanical issues, examine the pilot's background and consider environmental factors such as the weather, said Dennis Hogenson, the NTSB's acting deputy chief for the Western Pacific region.
The 11-year-old Eurocopter AS350, owned by St. Louis-based Helicopters Inc., took off en route to Renton, Wash., Hogenson said during a televised news conference. After the helicopter lifted up it began to rotate counter-clockwise and then exploded upon impact. The wreckage will be examined at a hangar at Auburn Municipal Airport about 30 miles away.
KOMO-TV and KING-TV jointly leased the chopper from Helicopters Inc.
KOMO said Pfitzner, 59, was employed by the leasing company that operates the helicopter and was well known among news employees.
Strothman, the 62-year-old photojournalist, worked for many years at KOMO, earning 13 Emmy Awards during his career. After retiring, he worked as a freelancer and also as an employee of the helicopter leasing company, the station said.
"We all know him as one of the best storytellers to have ever graced the halls of KOMO," news anchor and reporter Molly Shen said, according to a report on the station's website. "It felt like a loss for us because he knows his craft so well, and he's such an artist and such a great journalist."
"We mourn the loss of a couple of our co-workers today," KOMO anchor Dan Lewis said on the air, the station's report said. "It's so difficult for us to look at this scene, of the wreckage down there."
KOMO did not make clear whether the two victims were working on a news story at the time of the accident.
KOMO reporter Denise Whitaker covered the scene after the crash. According to the station's report, she said: "It is definitely a tragic scene down here. It is a difficult time for all of us this morning."
Daniel Alexandra Gonzalez, 22, a student at Seattle Central Community College, was outside the television station on Broad Street smoking a cigarette went the helicopter went down.
"I heard the engine come on, and about 15 seconds later I heard it sound heavy," he said. "I hear a ding, ding, ding, and then I heard a crash."
The copter crashed between two vehicles, one of which burst into flames, Gonzalez said.
Tuesday's crash was the worst involving a news aircraft since July 2007, when two helicopters collided in midair during coverage of a car chase in Phoenix, killing four people. In Texas, two died in 2008 when a helicopter crashed en route to covering a shooting.
In 1986, New York City was stunned when TV news reporter Jane Dornacker died when her helicopter crashed into the Hudson River while she was giving a live traffic report. And Francis Gary Powers, famous for being shot down in a U-2 spy plane in Soviet airspace, was one of two who died in a helicopter crash in 1977 while returning from covering a brush fire near Santa Barbara.
La Ganga reported from Seattle and Muskal from Los Angeles. Times staff writer Paresh Dave in Los Angeles contributed to this report.