News helicopter crash kills two near Seattle Center

Fire Department crews rushed a third person to Harborview Medical Center.
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KOMO chopper crash kills two on ground.

Fire Department crews rushed a third person to Harborview Medical Center.

Updated at 9:45 p.m.

Two people in a TV news helicopter died in a crash near Seattle Center this morning. Harborview doctors treated one person who sustained serious burns after the crash set fire to nearby cars and trucks.

KOMO News has identified the two victims of the crash as former KOMO employee Bill Strothman and pilot Gary Pfitzner. Colleagues and former co-workers described them as outstanding professionals. Strothman's son, Dan, is a KOMO photojournalist.

The crash happened around 7:40 a.m. just outside Fisher Plaza, where KOMO-TV has its headquarters. A Seattle Fire Department spokesperson said the helicopter was leased.

Dennis Hogenson, deputy regional director for the National Transportation Safety Board, said investigators have begun documenting witness statements, the helicopter's maintenance history, surveillance video that might have captured the crash and other evidence. The team hoped to move the wreckage to an Auburn hangar by 7 or 8 p.m. 

"We are looking at everything: the weather, the pilot, the environment," Hogenson told reporters at the crash scene in the afternoon.

Fire department spokesperson Kyle Moore said the burned man, Richard Newman, is in his late 30s; King County Executive Dow Constantine praised him as a highly regarded county public health worker engaged in HIV testing. Harborview's burn unit is noted for the quality of its care. Newman's burns cover 15 to 20 percent of his body, Harborview spokesperson Susan Gregg said. Initial reports suggested that he had suffered more extensive burns. At noon, Gregg said his condition was serious and "moving in the right direction."

The depth of the burns will require multiple surgeries at some point but not immediately; he will remain under intensive care throughout Tuesday, she said.

Reports said KOMO and KING-TV have been sharing the helicopter, and that it had previously been used in another metropolitan area.

City public safety officials said they believed everyone in vehicles that were hit by debris or caught in the fire had been accounted for. 

The first investigator from the National Transportation Safety Board was at the scene by 9:45 a.m.

The crash occurred along Broad Street running beside Seattle Center and just outside a driveway leading to the Space Needle. Another popular tourist attraction, the Experience Music Project, is also a short distance away. Morning traffic had begun to build but the usual smattering of tourists walking along the sidewalk had not.

At a press conference, Mayor Ed Murray said, "It was not a busy day at the Seattle Center. If it had been a busier day, it would have been a much bigger tragedy."

Eyewitness accounts indicated that the helicopter had touched down at KOMO's rooftop landing pad, and the pilot had gotten out, looked around, then took off again. NTSB's Hogenson said the helicopter had refueled there and was leaving for Renton. Eyewitnesses told reporters that the helicopter appeared to lose stability, and made unusual noises. One description was of a "whining" sound, Hogenson said. One man gave KIRO's Deborah Horne a dramatic account of backing away in the vehicle he was driving after a co-worker riding with him warned him of the pending trouble overhead. Debris hit the vehicle but the man and the passenger got away from the fire spread by spilled fuel.

Moore said traffic in the area could be difficult for the entire day.

In brief remarks to reporters broadcast by NWCN, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said any decisions about whether to keep the helicopter pad so close to the Space Center will await results of the the federal investigation. The area is also seeing additional construction. Later, at his press conference, Murray and Diane Sugimura, director of the city Department of Planning and Development, said the city would review its rules for allowing helicopter landing spots. 

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The crash site at John and Broad streets. Credit: Hailey Way

The NTSB has expressed serious concerns about helicopter safety nationally, issuing more than 200 recommendations since 2004 for improvements in operation, oversight and maintenance. In a listing of its 10 "most wanted" safety improvements in 2014, the agency said that the number of helicopter accidents is "unacceptably high." Some 500 people have died as a result of more than 1,600 helicopter accidents in the past 10 years.

"Helicopter operators should develop and implement safety management systems that include sound risk management practices," said the NTSB, "particularly with regard to inspection and maintenance."

The Federal Aviation Administration will also get involved in the investigation. The NTSB is expected to hold a press conference about its investigation process this afternoon. The Space Needle closed for the day, issuing a statement of sympathy for the people affected by the crash. EMP and the Monorail also closed. 

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Ed Murray talks about the crash/Photo by John Stang

At his press conference, Mayor Murray said the monorail would be closed at least the rest of the day. Hogenson told reporters that the NTSB team hoped to have all its on-site work done so that the Seattle Department of Transportation could reopen Broad Street and a nearby stretch of Fifth Avenue by 8 p.m.

Crosscut writers Joe Copeland, Hailey Way, MacKenzie Ciesa, Hailey Way and John Stang contributed to this story.


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