NTSB Investigating Fatal KOMO News Helicopter Crash Near Space Needle

Two people were killed inside a news helicopter when it crashed outside the KOMO-TV studios near the Space Needle in Seattle, sending clouds of black smoke into the sky during the rush hour at 7:40 a.m. Tuesday.

In addition to the fatalities, Seattle Fire Department spokesman Kyle Moore said a man managed to free himself from one of the burning cars at the accident scene. He was taken to Harborview Medical Center for treatment of serious burns. The man, who was initially listed in critical condition, was upgraded to serious condition Tuesday afternoon.

Crash Came Shortly After Takeoff

KOMO said the copter was apparently lifting off from its rooftop Tuesday morning when it went down, hitting at least one vehicle on Broad Street. The copter and three vehicles exploded in flames. 

Credit Ed Ronco

Burning fuel from the wreckage traveled as far as an entire block, setting off several secondary explosions, Moore said.

"Not only were the cars on fire, the fuel running down the street was on fire," Moore said. 

Emergency responders used sand to keep fuel from entering the sewer, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray said.

It was not immediately clear what caused the crash. KOMO said the crew was flying a backup helicopter at the time as its main helicopter was being refitted with upgrades; however, there is no reason to believe the crew wasn't familiar with the aircraft.  

During a news conference Tuesday afternoon, National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Dennis Hogenson said the agency was "looking at everything," including mechanical and environmental factors, as well as the actions of the pilot.

Hogenson said the copter had just flown in from Covington, and had refueled for a flight to Renton when it crashed. Witnesses told investigators they heard the engine make a strange sound — at least one described it as a "whine" — during takeoff, and saw the copter rotating in the moments before the crash.

The maintenance records of the copter, a 2003 Eurocopter AS350, were being flown out from the East Coast by representatives of the leasing company, Helicopters Inc. The NTSB expected to release a preliminary report in five days, Hogenson said, and a full report that includes probable cause is expected to take about a year.

The Victims 

Bill Strothman

KOMO News identified the deceased as Gary Pfitzner, the pilot, and Bill Strothman, a longtime KOMO photographer who went on to work for the helicopter leasing company. Strothman's son also works at the station as a photographer.

Harborview spokeswoman Susan Gregg said the Seattle man suffered burns on as much as 20 percent of his body and has been transferred from the emergency room to the intensive care unit. 

She said the 38-year-old man will require surgery as his burns are deep. The fire department initially reported that the man is 37 years old and has burns on half of his body.

Moore said one of the drivers, a woman, escaped from her car uninjured and made her way to the police department's West Precinct. The fire department was trying to find the driver of the third vehicle, a truck, and later reported on Twitter that he had been found and was OK.

'It Exploded Instantly'

The crash took place at a busy time of the morning, when people were heading to work. Chris McColgan was in his truck stopped at a traffic light near the Space Needle when he saw the helicopter start to whip around above him, seemingly out of control.

A burned out car sits adjacent to a piece of wreckage of the KOMO helicopter.
Credit Elaine Thompson / AP Photo

"He pulled off the pad a little bit and when he pulled off, he just lost control and it banked to its right and it landed right on top of two cars," McColgan said. "Literally, one car behind me were the two cars that got hit."

McColgan said he drove away after the helicopter and cars burst into flames, worried the flames would engulf his truck.

“It exploded instantly," McColgan said. "I took off through the light because I didn't know if there was going to be another explosion or something like that."

The Response

Credit Elaine Thompson / AP Photo

Seattle fire officials said the department responded with 26 vehicles because initial reports indicated the helicopter had hit a building. One person even reported incorrectly that chopper had struck the Space Needle, they said. 

"It started as a heavy rescue and then we upgraded it due to not only the large volume of smoke and fire, but the fact that we had multiple patients," said Moore. "So we wanted to make sure every patient had their own engine company to treat them." 

Credit Elaine Thompson / AP Photo

Moore said the earliest firefighters on the scene had a hard time even discerning the helicopter in the midst of the blaze.   

Investigators planned to move the wreckage to a hangar in Auburn for further examination.

Nearby attractions, including the Seattle Monorail, the Experience Music Project and the Space Needle all closed in the aftermath of the crash. The Monorail resumed service just before 5 p.m.

City To Revisit Policy On Helicopter Landing Pads

The mayor said the city will re-examine its policy on helicopter landing pads in the wake of the fatal crash.

Speaking at a news conference hours after the accident, the mayor said city regulations on helicopter landing pads changed in the 1980s. At that time, the city instituted more regulations and limited where helicopters could take off and land.

The mayor, who grew up in Seattle, said he could not remember a previous helicopter crash in Seattle.

The mayor's office said there are about 12 helipads in Seattle. Spokesman Jeff Reading said current rules allow them to be used in some commercial zones, downtown and in industrial areas. They can only be used for public service, emergency medical care and for news agencies.

In response to the fatal crash, KIRO-TV said it has grounded its helicopter as a precaution. 

"We have no reason to believe that there’s anything wrong with our chopper, but we are taking this action out of an abundance of caution," KIRO said in a statement.