Two people were killed and one was critically injured when the KOMO News helicopter crashed and burst into flames Tuesday morning on Broad Street only yards away from the Space Needle.
Emergency personnel immediately rushed to the scene as thick smoke poured over the city at the height of the morning commute.
Two cars and a pickup truck on Broad Street were struck in the crash. Occupants of two vehicles were able to escape without injury, but the driver of a third vehicle was badly burned.
Witnesses said the thirty-eight-year-old Seattle man could be seen running from from his car with his clothing on fire, and he was extinguished by officers at the scene. The man suffered burns on his lower back and arm, covering up to twenty percent of his body, Harborview hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg said. He was originally listed in critical condition but was upgraded to serious condition Tuesday afternoon, Gregg said, adding the the man will eventually need surgery for his burns but not immediately.
Inside of the chopper were pilot Gary Pfitzner and veteran KOMO photographer Bill Strothman, both of whom worked for Sinclair Media Seattle as contractors.
(Sinclair purchased Seattle-based Fisher Communications last year in a megadeal that saw the once independent Pacific Northwest media group swallowed up by a national conglomerate with right wing ownership. It now owns KOMO, KATU, and a number of other radio and television stations in the region).
The helicopter, a temporary replacement for the actual Air 4 (which is in the shop for upgrades), had been taking off from the roof of Fisher Plaza around twenty minutes before eight o’clock when something went terribly wrong. Apparently full of fuel, it crashed and then burned after hitting the ground, creating a nightmarish scene adjacent to the Space Needle and Fisher Plaza that horrified bystanders.
Firefighters rushed to Broad to put out the fire and tend to the injured on the ground. Sadly, Pfitzner and Strothman were dead.
KOMO suddenly found itself in the position of reporting on the death of two of its own as the lead story for the morning, yards from its own newsroom.
And report it did, though crew and reporters alike understandably struggled to keep their composure. Anchor Dan Lewis, enroute to the White House to talk to President Obama, rushed back to Fisher Plaza to be with the KOMO family.
According to eyewitness Chris McOlgan, who had a front-row seat to the disaster from his own vehicle: “It just blew up instantly… Nothing could have been done.”
The helicopter, which the Federal Aviation Administration confirmed to be a Eurocopter AS350, is owned by Helicopters, Inc. of St. Louis, Missouri. The company says on its website that it “specializes in the design/build and leasing of news gathering helicopters for television and radio stations nationwide.”
The Eurocopter AS350 is a single-engine helicopter manufactured by Airbus in France. It was designed by Aérospatiale, which later merged with Daimler-Benz Aerospace AG to create the Eurocopter Group in 1992.
The merger of Eurocopter Group’s owners made the company a division of Airbus, and it was renamed Airbus Helicopters in 2000.
The AS350 is considered a versatile chopper; it has been in production since the 1970s. In 2005, an AS350 was landed on Mount Everest by a test pilot. It is used by the Los Angeles Police Department and the United States Border Patrol.
The National Transportation Safety Board said in a tweet that it was investigating the incident. Air crashes always investigated by the NTSB, as are railway accidents and major highway mishaps like the Skagit River Bridge collapse. NTSB personnel are already at the crash site, working with first responders.
KIRO TV said in a statement that it was grounding its own helicopter, Chopper 7, out of an abundance of caution, until the aircraft can be inspected.
The Space Needle, Experience Music Project, Chihuly Garden and Glass and Seattle Monorail are closed and will remain closed for the rest of the day. The Monorail may be out of service for the rest of the week while authorities investigate the tragedy.
Local political leaders offered their sympathies to KOMO.
“I just returned from Fisher Plaza where, as you know, a KOMO Air-4 news helicopter crashed at takeoff this morning,” said Seattle Mayor Ed Murray at a news conference at City Hall. “Two individuals, both KOMO employees, were tragically killed. In times like this, we’re reminded that the media — like many of us — are also public servants.”
“I met with the family of one of those who is deceased as well as with many of their coworkers. As you can imagine, they are in a state of shock, and they are devastated. On behalf of Seattle, I want to express my deepest condolence to the families of both the victims and to all their colleagues at KOMO. Our thoughts and prayers are with you during this incredibly difficult moment. Our thoughts are also with those who have been injured in the situation.”
“This morning two members of the KOMO news family were killed in a tragic crash,” said Governor Inslee. “Trudi and I send our condolences to their families and to the men and women at KOMO who, despite the personal impacts of this tragedy, have been reporting on this loss with impressive professionalism and grace. Our hearts go out to you. I know the people of Seattle – and the people of Washington – are keeping you in their thoughts. We also hope for the best for those injured.”
“My thoughts and prayers go out to the families of Bill Strothman and Gary Pfitzner and to the entire KOMO family,” said Senator Maria Cantwell. “Today’s tragedy is an unimaginable loss for Seattle’s journalism community. Today, we are all thankful for the journalists who face risks every day to report the news in our communities.
“I join Washingtonians in offering our deepest condolences to the families of the victims of this horrific accident, and praying for the safe recovery of those injured. And we thank Seattle first responders and the National Transportation Safety Board for their quick response to this tragic incident.”