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Seattle seeks answers, normalcy after news helicopter crash

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A day after the deadly crash of Seattle news helicopter, downtown traffic resumed at the site of the fiery accident as federal investigators continued their search for answers to what caused the tragedy.

The National Transportation Safety Board scheduled a news briefing for Wednesday afternoon. A final report is expected to take months, though officials said there could be a preliminary finding within days.

On Tuesday morning, the helicopter had stopped at a helipad atop the building housing KOMO-TV, which leased the craft. It 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 only one car.

Two people, the pilot and a photojournalist on the helicopter, were killed. 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.

The scene, which had been shut down after the crash about 7:50 a.m. Tuesday, returned to a degree of normality as streets reopened. Wreckage had been removed and the streets cleaned and inspected, city officials said.

The wreckage of the helicopter had been moved to the municipal airport in Auburn, Wash., about an hour away, where investigators will begin the painstaking process of reassembling the craft to learn its secrets.

At a Tuesday news conference, officials said they were investigating witness reports that the helicopter had problems on takeoff.

“We have a witness report that said shortly after liftoff the helicopter did begin to rotate,” Dennis Hogenson, the NTSB's acting deputy chief of the western Pacific region, said at the afternoon news conference.

“We have witness accounts that there was an unusual noise coming from the helicopter at the time of its departure,” he added.

Hogenson identified the aircraft as a Eurocopter AS350 made in 2003. It was leased from Helicopters Inc. of Cahokia, Ill.

“On behalf of the Helicopters Inc. family, I would like to extend our deepest sympathies to the families of those lost and injured in Seattle,” president Stephen Lieber said in a prepared statement. “We mourn their loss and suffering and our thoughts and prayers are with them. We will cooperate fully and completely with the National Transportation Safety Board and provide to it whatever information it wants in order to assist it in its work in determining what happened.”

KOMO identified the dead as pilot Gary Pfitzner, and Bill Strothman, a former longtime KOMO photographer. Both men worked for the helicopter company that leased the vehicle to KOMO and KING-TV.

Richard Newman, 38, suffered burns on his lower back and arm, covering as much as 20% of his body, hospital spokeswoman Susan Gregg told reporters. He was in serious condition in the intensive care unit and likely will require surgery.

The last helicopter crash in Seattle was in November 1999, when a KIRO-TV news helicopter collided in midair with another helicopter over Lake Union. There were only minor injuries after both pilots landed safely at nearby helipads, according to an NTSB report.

In the wake of the crash, all news helicopters in Seattle have been grounded.

Mayor Ed Murray said officials would review rules for helicopter pads in the city to determine if any changes need to be made.

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