SEATTLE (AP) — A news helicopter crashed into a street and burst into flames Tuesday near Seattle's Space Needle, killing both 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 KOMO-TV's roof when it went down at a 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," Reynolds said.
Witnesses also reported hearing unusual noises coming from the helicopter as it took off after refueling, said Dennis Hogenson, deputy regional chief with the National Transportation Safety Board in Seattle. They said the aircraft then rotated before it crashed near the Seattle Center campus, which is home to the Space Needle, restaurants and performing arts centers.
Mayor Ed Murray noted the normally bustling Seattle Center was relatively quiet at the time. Had it been a busier day, "this would have been a much larger tragedy," he said.
In response to the crash, the city will review its policies about permitting helicopter pads, Murray said.
Investigators documented the scene and will examine all possibilities as they determine what caused the crash, Hogenson said. A preliminary analysis 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. Also 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. The aircraft was leased jointly by KOMO and KING-TV.
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, Moore said.
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.
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