News helicopter crashes near Seattle

Seattle -- A pilot and photographer were killed after a 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.

The crash happened around 7:40 a.m. Pacific time in the 400 block of Broad Street next to Fisher Plaza, which is home to Seattle TV station KOMO. Photographer Bill Strothman and pilot Gary Pfitzner were killed. The aircraft was being operated by Helicopters, Inc. through a lease agreement with KOMO. Strothman was a former KOMO photographer.

Richard Newman, 38, is at Harborview Medical Center in serious condition after the helicopter landed on his car. Spokeswoman Susan Gregg says he has second- and third-degree burns on up to 20 percent of his body -- on his back and arms. He also has cuts on his head and a broken rib. He's sedated in the intensive care unit and will need surgeries for the burns, but not immediately,

A woman from one of the burned cars went to a police station and talked to officers.

A man from the pickup truck walked away, but was later located OK.

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.

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," he told reporters at the scene.

Firefighters stopped the burning fuel from entering the storm drain.

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 say, 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. A final report could take up to a year.

The helicopter was a Eurostar AS350-B2. Helicopters, Inc. is based in St. Louis and, according to its website, employs 140 full-time pilots and mechanics nationwide and flies more than 45,000 hours every year.

KING 5 shares with KOMO the cost of the helicopter and video service provided by Helicopters, Inc.

Hogenson said the NTSB would look at maintenance and safety records of the helicopter, which was manufactured in 2003.

The wreckage was expected to be cleared by 8 p.m. Tuesday and moved to a facility to continue the investigation, Hogenson said.

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."

KIRO 7 grounded its helicopter, pending a thorough review of flight safety, according to news director Bob Jordan's post on Twitter.

Strothman won 13 Emmys and worked for KOMO from 1979-2008, but left to freelance and has been employed by Helicopters, Inc. since 2008.

"It's rare that you have news photographers who are willing to put in a lot of effort to tell a great story with video and audio and Bill was one of those guys, that's why he lasted so long in this business," said KOMO reporter Matt Markovich.

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."

"Words cannot express the sympathy and sadness we feel for the victims who lost their lives in today's tragedy and for their families," said Ray Heacox, KING-TV president and general manager. "We grieve this afternoon with the entire Seattle community and our thoughts are with all those affected."

The Space Needle and Experience Music Project closed for the day out of respect for those killed.

The Monorail was closed after the crash but was opened just after 4 p.m.

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