SEATTLE -- An Emmy-award winning photographer and a helicopter pilot have been identified as the two dead in the fiery crash of a KOMO-TV news chopper Tuesday morning, officials said.
The helicopter had just taken off from its rooftop perch near the Seattle Space Needle about 7:50 a.m. when it came crashing down to the street and burst into flames as horrified employees watched from office windows.
A 38-year-old man who escaped from one of three cars involved in the crash was hospitalized in serious condition with burns of up to 20% of his body. Two other vehicles were damaged.
KOMO identified the dead as pilot Gary Pfitzner and photographer Bill Strothman.
Strothman worked for many years at KOMO, earning 13 Emmy awards during his career. After retiring, he worked as a freelancer and also as an employee of the helicopter leasing company that operates the KOMO News chopper, the station said. Pfitzner, was employed by the helicopter leasing company that operates the chopper and was a familiar sight to KOMO employees.
"We mourn the loss of a couple of our coworkers today," KOMO anchor Dan Lewis said on the air. "It's so difficult for us to look at this scene, of the wreckage down there."
On the street, reporter Denise Whitaker said, "It is definitely a tragic scene down here. It is a difficult time for all of us this morning."
Officials from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration have begun the search for answers about why the helicopter seemed to become unbalanced on takeoff and then crash near the landmark Space Needle.
Kristopher Reynolds, who was working in construction on the 22nd floor of a nearby building at 3rd and Cedar streets when he saw the helicopter take off as usual.
"I like to watch them take off. There is usually no problem," he said. "Today was a totally different thing."
He described seeing the helicopter "rise four feet, then lift up, go counter-clockwise on a tilt." He said it appeared the chopper, also used by KING-TV, was trying to correct itself.
"It tried to come back and land," Reynolds said, but it then went into "a side dive. The next thing I know it hit the ground and there was a ball of fire."
Huge flames sent dense black smoke billowing everywhere, he said.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued a statement:
"Trudi and I send our condolences to their families and to the men and women at KOMO who, despite the personal impacts of this tragedy, have been reporting on this loss with impressive professionalism and grace," Inslee said. "Our hearts go out to you. I know the people of Seattle – and the people of Washington – are keeping you in their thoughts."
Tuesday's crash was the worst involving a news aircraft since 2007 when two helicopters collided in midair during coverage of a car chase in Phoenix, killing four. In Texas, two died in 2008 when a helicopter crashed en route to covering a shooting.
In 1986, New York City was stunned when reporter Jane Dornacker died when her helicopter crashed into the Hudson River while she was giving a live traffic report.
And Francis Gary Powers, famous for being shot down in a U-2 spy plane by the Soviet Union in 1960, was one of two who died when the helicopter he was piloting crashed in Encino on the way back from covering a brush fire near Santa Barbara in 1977.
In Seattle, KIRO-TV grounded its helicopter following Tuesday's crash. In a statement, the station said: "Chopper7 has been grounded, pending a thorough review of flight safety."
"My heart goes out ... to the individuals and all of their coworkers," Seattle Fire Department spokesman Kyle Moore told reporters at the scene. "Television is a family business and everyone works close together."