SEATTLE – A news helicopter crashed into a street and burst into flames Tuesday near Seattle’s Space Needle, killing two people on board, badly injuring a man in a car and sending plumes of black smoke over the city during the morning commute.
The chopper was taking off from a helipad on the KOMO-TV station’s roof when it went down at a busy downtown intersection and hit three vehicles, starting them on fire and spewing burning fuel down the street.
Kristopher Reynolds, a contractor working nearby, said he saw the helicopter lift about 5 feet off the low-rise building before it started to tilt. The chopper looked like it was trying to correct itself when it took a dive.
“Next thing I know, it went into a ball of flames,” he said.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said that in response to the crash, the city will review its policies about permitting helicopter pads.
He noted the normally bustling Seattle Center wasn’t very busy at the time of the wreck on Broad Street. Had it been a busier day, “this would have been a much larger tragedy,” Murray said.
The Seattle Center campus is home to the Space Needle, restaurants and performing arts centers; it hosts a number of festivals throughout the year that draw thousands of visitors.
KOMO identified the pilot as Gary Pfitzner. The other man killed in the crash was Bill Strothman, a former longtime KOMO photographer. Both men were working for the leasing company that operates the news helicopter, the station said.
Strothman was someone “who really knew how his pictures could tell a million words,” news anchor Dan Lewis said on the air. “He was just a true gentleman.”
“We’re going to miss you guys. And thanks so much for all that you gave to us,” Lewis said, choking up.
Firefighters who arrived at the scene before 8 a.m. found a “huge black cloud of smoke” and two cars and a pickup truck engulfed in flames, Seattle Fire Department spokesman Kyle Moore said.
Fuel running down the street also was on fire, and crews worked to stop the fuel before it entered the sewer, Moore said.
An injured man managed to free himself from a car and was taken to Harborview Medical Center, Moore said.
Richard Newman, 38, suffered burns on his lower back and arm, covering up to 20 percent of his body, hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg said. He was in serious condition in the intensive care unit and likely would require surgery, she said.
Two others who were in cars that were struck by the helicopter were uninjured. One of them, a woman, went to a police station and talked to officers, while a man from the pickup walked to a nearby McDonald’s restaurant. Police later located him unhurt.
Only the helicopter’s blue tail end could be identified among the wreckage strewn across the Seattle Center’s lawn. National Transportation Safety Board investigators inspected the scene.
The cause of the wreck was not yet known. Murray said the crash site could be closed for three to five days while officials with the NTSB and Federal Aviation Administration probe what happened.
The station said the Eurocopter AS350 helicopter might have hit the side of a building before it went down. KOMO is a block from the Space Needle and is surrounded by high-rise office and apartment buildings.
Lewis said it wasn’t the regular KOMO helicopter but a temporary replacement for one that is in the shop for an upgrade.
Workers at KOMO rushed to the window when they heard the crash. Reporters with the station were then in the position of covering the deaths of colleagues.
On the street shortly after the crash, KOMO reporter Denise Whitaker said: “It is definitely a tragic scene down here. It is a difficult time for all of us this morning.”
The crash site also is near the EMP Museum, the music and culture museum created by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
The Seattle Monorail, which runs about 50 yards away, was operating Tuesday morning and passed the scene about 15 seconds before the crash happened, said Thomas Ditty, the monorail’s general manager.
Other cities have experienced helicopter crashes as TV stations rush to cover the news from above major cities.
Two news helicopters collided in midair in Phoenix in 2007 as the aircraft covered a police chase, sending fiery wreckage plummeting onto a park. Four people in the helicopters were killed.
The crash prompted changes at the stations in how they operated their helicopter crews.