SEATTLE—KOMO’s Twitter feed took an abrupt shift Tuesday morning as news of a fatal helicopter crash hit. The incident took of two of the station's own. Veteran news shooter Bill Strothman and contract chopper pilot Gary Pfitzner were both killed when their helo, Air4, went down shortly after take-off from Fisher Plaza, according to KOMA News.
“Water main break damages store parking lot,” the station tweeted at 7:17 a.m. Pacific from @komonews. “Putin signs treaty, adds Crimea to map of Russia,” at 7:34 a.m. Everything changes at 7:55 a.m.: “News helicopter crashes, burns beside space needle.” Pic of a red car in flames (left). Retweeted more than 1,100 times.
The cause of the crash was not immediately known, according to Baltimore-based Sinclair Broadcast Group, the station’s owner.
KOMO’s Kelly Koopsman, @KellyKOMO4, was on the scene: “Flames now out, [pic , right] told by a witness one person on fire when crawled out of a cars. 1 responders working on that person.”
Within 20 minutes, the Seattle Fire Department confirms that two individuals at the scene were dead on arrival. It’s not clear when the KOMO staff realized that it was Strothman and Pfitzner who were killed. Koopsman tweeted shortly before 9 a.m.: “PIO: 2 ppl inside chopper dead, 1 37 yo man transported life threatening injuries, NTSB will investigate, don't know chain of events yet.”
@komonews posted a scene pic at 9:21 a.m. showing black smoke rising near the Space Needle, and what is apparently fuel on fire running down the side of an adjacent street (below). The newsroom briefing follows, and soon, posts about Strothman and Pfitzner. Strothman’s 13 Emmy Awards. His son Dan, also a shooter at KOMO. How Pfitzner loved to fly, and planned to retire soon from Boeing.
“Gary died doing what he loved,” Pfitzner’s brother told KOMO’s news team.
An outpouring of support from the Seattle market.
“Seattle is a city alive, they have lost little pieces today,” @keriRN wrote.
“We are all family in this community. What affects one affects us all,” @chenoite said.
People begin to lay flowers Fisher Plaza after lunch.
“Just now taking a deep breath after such as surreal morning,” Koopsman wrote. “Thank you all for your thoughts and condolences.”
A third man at the scene was injured and reported to be in serious condition during KOMO’s live coverage of a 2 p.m. news conference called by the National Transportation Safety Board.
The NTSB official said the call came into them at 7:40 a.m. Two investigators arrived on the scene at 9:30. The helicopter, a 2003 Eurocopter 350, had been out, had returned to the helipad for refueling, and was leaving again. It started rotating counterclockwise on take-off and went down, he said, and witnesses heard the aircraft “whining.” The agency was not prepared to speculate whether or not the rotation was indicative of a mechanical failure.
The maintenance records for the helo are kept on the East Coast and have been ordered, he said. He did not have safety statistics for the aircraft, an Airbus model made in Grand Prairie, Texas. The NTSB official said the Eurocopter is popular with electronic newsgathering teams. Preliminary report is expected in five days, he said.
The chopper was owned by Helicopters, Inc., and shared on lease by KOMO and Gannett-owned KING-TV, the local NBC affiliate. Helicopters, Inc., based in Cahokia, Ill., runs Bells and three models of the AS350 in its fleet.
Sinclair said more information would be released about the crash as it became available.
“We are deeply saddened by this tragedy,” said Janene Drafs, general manager of KOMO, in the statement released by Sinclair. “The pilot and the photographer who lost their lives were like family to us, here at the station. We are grieving for them, their families and the on-ground victims who were injured in this horrific event. We have arranged for grief counselors for our employees. We also want to thank the first responders, city officials and other in-market television stations that reached out to offer emotional and news support during this time.”
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