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Seattle helicopter crash: Investigators sorting through variables

Investigators trying to determine why a news helicopter crashed in downtown Seattle upon takeoff Tuesday were scheduled to examine the engine and sift through videos from surveillance and cellphone cameras in hopes of finding an explanation for the fatal accident.

"There are a number of scenarios, and we’re looking into all of them,” Dennis Hogenson, acting regional deputy chief for the National Transportation Safety Board, said during a televised news conference Wednesday. The agency expects to release a preliminary report about the crash by the end of the week.

The helicopter’s pilot and a photojournalist, both of whom were working for a KOMO-TV contractor, died in the crash. Their last words were not recorded because the helicopter had neither a cockpit voice recorder nor a flight data recorder, Hogenson said. The instruments were not legally required, he added. The helicopter’s news camera was plugged in but not recording.

The normally bustling tourist area where the chopper went down, not far from the city's iconic Space Needle, was quiet Tuesday morning at the time of the crash. But authorities still found themselves holding a large volume of witness statements and video footage because of the downtown location, Hogenson said. None of the videos reviewed so far appears to have captured the failed takeoff, however.

The NTSB found no evidence of damage on the helipad. But agency investigators plan to return to the crash site Thursday to map the relationship between the helipad and nearby construction cranes.

An operator of one downtown crane told authorities that he had talked to the pilot via radio when the helicopter landed on the helipad earlier that morning.

"There is quite a bit of dialogue between pilots and crane operators in and out of that area," Hogenson said. Whether cranes played a significant role in the crash hasn't been established, he said.

The investigators also hope to find some clues after separating the engine from the rest of the wreckage, Hogenson said.

Helicopters Inc., the Illinois helicopter operator that mostly contracts with news organizations, owned the helicopter involved in the crash and about 80 others.

Its 11-year-old Eurocopter AS350 B2 passed its most recent inspection in January. The helicopter had reportedly been used in Boston for a decade, and had since been used as a spare while other aircraft were in the shop.

The pilot, Gary Pfitzner, had 7,700 hours of flying experience, including 900 hours on the type of helicopter involved in the crash.

He and photographer Bill Strothman had stopped at a helipad atop the building housing KOMO-TV for about 30 minutes after an earlier flight. The helicopter refueled and was taking off on its next assignment when it appeared to run into trouble and crashed to the street and burned. Three vehicles were ignited by the heat and burning fuel, though the helicopter appears to have directly hit just one car.

A 38-year-old man managed to escape a burning car and on Wednesday was listed in serious condition at Harborview Medical Center with burns on up to 20% of his body.

Witnesses described hearing unusual noises, such as an engine whining, as the helicopter lifted off and began to rotate toward the ground.

Following the crash, all news helicopters in Seattle were grounded.

Mayor Ed Murray said officials would review rules for helicopter pads in the city to determine whether any changes needed to be made. Earlier this year, the NTSB said helicopter safety was one its main focus areas in 2014.

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