A television news helicopter leased to station KOMO 4 crashed Tuesday morning in Seattle near the city's iconic Space Needle, killing two people on board and critically injuring one man in a car.
Eyewitnesses said the helicopter had just taken off from a helipad on the fifth floor of the KOMO 4 television station on 400 Broad St. in downtown Seattle when it appeared to rotate and tumble nose first to the ground around 7:40 a.m. PT.
When it hit, the helicopter landed on a car and spilled aviation fuel on the street. The ensuing fireball engulfed a pickup truck and another car and sent a large plume of black smoke up into the sky over Seattle.
KOMO has confirmed that the pilot of the helicopter was Gary Pfitzner, who was employed by Helicopters, Inc., a St. Louis-based company which had leased the helicopter to the television station.
The other man killed was Bill Strothman, a former longtime KOMO photographer who was also working for the helicopter leasing company.
Because the crash happened during the morning rush hour, there were many eyewitnesses.
Some reported the helicopter engine was making an unusual rumbling sound just before the crash. Others have said the helicopter may have clipped a building after taking off, KOMO has reported.
Daniel Gonzales, the son of a KOMO employee was outside the building in the smoking area and heard the helicopter's engine rev up.
"Fifteen seconds later, I heard a boom," he said. "I heard the boom, and I looked up and about two seconds later, the flames started spreading out ... from the base of the helicopter," he told a KOMO reporter this morning.
Kristopher Reynolds, a contractor working nearby, saw the crash. He said the helicopter lifted about 1.5 meters and looked like it was about to clear the building when it tilted. He said it looked as though it was trying to correct itself and then took a dive downward.
"Next thing I know, it went into a ball of flames," he said.
Fire department spokesman Kyle Moore said when fire crews arrived, they found the helicopter, two cars and a pickup truck on fire, along with a huge cloud of black smoke.
"Not only were the cars on fire, the fuel running down the street was on fire," he told reporters at the scene.
Emergency crews extinguished the fire within minutes, but they were unable to save the two men in the helicopter.
Survivors escaped from vehicles
A 37-year-old man managed to escape from the car that was caught in the crash. Witnesses reported after he jumped out of the burning vehicle, he rolled on the ground to try to put out the flames on his body.
He was taken to hospital with critical injuries and is being treated for burns to about 20 per cent of his body.
The drivers of two other vehicles caught in the fire reportedly walked away from the scene.
A woman from one of the burned cars went to a police station and talked to officers. The man from the pickup truck walked off. Fire investigators want to talk to him, a spokesman with the Seattle Fire Department said.
Fire officials said the flames are out and the investigation into the cause has begun. No official cause for the crash has been released by any officials.
The helicopter that crashed was a replacement for the station's regular helicopter, which was getting serviced. The replacement was also shared with Seattle's KING 5 TV, according to reports.
Emergency crews and investigators are on the scene, and the area is closed to traffic.
2 DOAs at helicopter crash scene near space needle. pic.twitter.com/JwhBs2nYUF— Seattle Fire Dept (@SeattleFire) March 18, 2014