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Seattle looks at helipad rules after deadly crash

Helicopter Crash Near Space Needle in Seattle

SEATTLE (AP) - The news helicopter had just stopped at a helipad to refuel on its way to another assignment when it crashed and burst into flames yards from the Space Needle in the heart of Seattle, killing the two men on board and seriously injuring a third man who was on fire when he escaped from his car.

It may be months before federal investigators know what caused the chopper to plummet at a busy intersection, setting three vehicles ablaze and spewing burning fuel down the street during the Tuesday morning commute.

The KOMO-TV flight was one of many helicopter flights that take off and land in Seattle's downtown. Mayor Ed Murray said officials would review rules for helicopter pads in the city to determine if any changes need to be made.

Witnesses reported hearing unusual noises coming from the aircraft as it lifted off after refueling, said Dennis Hogenson, deputy regional chief of the Western Pacific Region for the National Transportation Safety Board.

They also said the aircraft rotated counterclockwise before it crashed near the Seattle Center campus, which is home to the Space Needle, restaurants and performing arts centers.

Bo Bain, an excavation foreman at a nearby construction project, watched the helicopter land as usual, one of many flights he has watched come and go in recent months. But he said something sounded different when the aircraft left the helipad Tuesday morning.

"It pitched sideways. It was off balance, and you could tell right away something wasn't right," Bain said. "The helicopter was struggling to stay up. It spun around, hit the top of the tree and landed on the street."

Seconds later, he said: "It was just a fireball. The whole thing burst into flames. I saw people running from their cars."

Hogenson said a preliminary report on the crash is expected in five days, followed by a fuller report with a probable cause in up to a year.

KOMO identified the pilot as Gary Pfitzner, of Issaquah. The other man killed in the crash was Bill Strothman, a former longtime KOMO photographer. Both men were working for Cahokia, Ill.-based Helicopters Inc., which owned the Eurocopter AS350 helicopter. The aircraft was leased jointly by KOMO and KING-TV.

The helicopter was a temporary replacement for one that is in the shop for an upgrade, KOMO reported.

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 it before it entered the sewer.

An injured man managed to free himself from a burning car and was taken to Harborview Medical Center, Moore said. The man was on fire and KOMO reported that one of its building security guards, Brian Post, ran toward the fire to help.

"I used my hand at first and then his jacket to get the flames out," Post, a former police officer, told the station.

Richard Newman, 38, suffered burns on his lower back and arm, covering as much as 20 percent of his body, hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg said. He was in serious condition in the intensive care unit and likely will require surgery, she said Tuesday.

Two others who were in vehicles that were struck by the helicopter were uninjured.

KOMO is a block from the Space Needle and is surrounded by high-rise office and apartment buildings. Workers at the station rushed to the window when they heard the crash. KOMO reporters were then in the position of covering their colleagues' deaths.

One of them, Denise Whitaker, said on the street shortly after the crash: "It is a difficult time for all of us this morning."

News anchor Dan Lewis described Strothman as someone "who really knew how his pictures could tell a million words."

"He was just a true gentleman," Lewis said on the air. "We're going to miss you guys."

The Strothman family said in a statement that the former KOMO photographer was a "great man, a kind soul, a devoted husband, a loving father and brother."

Mark Pfitzner said in a statement that his brother Gary loved adventure, to travel and to fly. He was the oldest of seven kids and "took great care of his brothers and sister."

Other cities have experienced helicopter crashes as TV stations rush to cover the news from above major cities.

The last helicopter crash in Seattle was in November 1999, when a KIRO-TV news helicopter collided in midair with another helicopter over Lake Union. There were only minor injuries, after both pilots landed safely at nearby helipads, according to an NTSB report.

Current rules in Seattle allow helipads to be used downtown and in some commercial zones and industrial areas. They can be used only for public service, emergency medical care and for news agencies, mayor's office spokesman Jeff Reading said.

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.

Join the discussion

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bedbugtoo March 19 2014 at 7:21 AM

It is a very sad day here in the Seattle area, the loss of life isn't suppose to happen. Gods speed and peace be with you and your families. Life is too short as it is.

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sstuczynsk March 19 2014 at 9:32 AM

New rules always after the fact.. Did anyone ever think of looking for safety hazards before a tragedy happens?

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1 reply
Gator sstuczynsk March 19 2014 at 10:00 AM

The sad part is that most Fire Codes and building Codes are "knee jerk" codes. Not put in place until AFTER someone has died because of what it [the code] prohibits or directs ...

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Welcome to Jan's March 19 2014 at 10:46 AM

Why is it that we - they wait for the inevitable to happen and then decide to review heli landing rules. These types of crashes have happened before ie Grand Rapids MI life flight crash where the pad is attached to the building. No one died in that crash but hospital was evacuated due to fuel and on and on. It's heartbreaking.

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blueeyessing March 19 2014 at 10:57 AM

There were probably thousands and thousands of takeoffs from that helipad with no incident before this one. R.I.P. and hope the man in the hospital has a full recovery.

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Terry Crane March 19 2014 at 11:20 AM

Heli Ink has a great safety record,Don't go in to knee jerk mode and change the regulations.I flew for ABC and CBS in NYC for eight years without an incident .Probably one of the best helicopter jobs i have had in my 10,000 +hour 52 years as a helicopter pilot

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1 reply
sgard206 Terry Crane March 19 2014 at 12:57 PM

Thank you! Of course, KOMO covered this story the entire day, interrupting regularly scheduled programming. When the media does that, no matter the story, they trot out every person willing to make an appearance to fill air time. Too much personal opinion and too much speculation inevitably leads to people crying for regulation changes where none are needed. A sad accident, but thankfully rare.

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foubabou March 19 2014 at 11:43 AM

The FAA has regulations in place for helipad operations. Municipalities may impose stricter policies if they so desire but can not go less than the FAA. The owners (privately owned) may use even stricter policies but not less than the municipalities.

Policies and safety procedures are already in place to safeguard the public from accidents. Prior to a determination of the exact cause of the accident is not the time to scream for more restrictive procedures. Let's give the NTSB time to evaluate all the facts and determine what happened before calling for more restrictive regulations.

That said it can be noted a huge majority if not all of the ENG aircraft are single engine and the US has probably the most liberal single engine operating regs in the world. Most of the world won't even let singles fly over congested areas except in rare occasions.

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Tyler March 19 2014 at 12:46 PM

i have flowen a helicopter before.If a heli has left the ground and added pitch to fast before the blades have got up speed it will lose power were you cant controll the bird or the tail rotor.the motor has to be at full.and the pitch most be added slow,also if the motor is not running right were you have no time to auto rotate the bird down it will drop like a rock.I have also flown Rc helis.for years.
they all work on the same table.-3 to +6 to +10 pitch.back down to +6 to -3 a heli is a hand full.6 things going on at one time. front back L- R and + - pitch. and all the other crap going on at the same time.this is y a heli pilot makes all that money.a plane will fly its self.a heli you never let go of the stick.god bless them all.

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Brian Workman March 19 2014 at 4:11 PM

Pilot error! SAD! Majority of aircraft accidents are made by Pilot error!

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1 reply
Walt Brian Workman March 19 2014 at 5:41 PM


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flysail2 March 19 2014 at 10:24 AM

The last helicopter crash in Seattle was 1999. As bad as this accident was it is a great safety record. How many fatal accidents since 1999 involving cars? Knee jerk New rules from liberals. Go figure! There should be new rules for taking showers.... I am sure there has been fatalities doing that.

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