A year ago, Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others boarded a Sikorsky S-76B helicopter at John Wayne Airport in Orange County. They were headed to a youth basketball tournament at the Mamba Sports Academy (“Mamba” was later removed from the name) in Thousand Oaks. Kobe was coaching Gianna’s team. What happened on that Sunday morning flight, in the fog-shrouded hills above Calabasas, would shock the world.
The Night Before
Text message thread between Patti Taylor, operations manager at OC Helicopters, Island Express Helicopters pilot Ara Zobayan, and others.
Taylor: “Ok And weather look ok tomorrow?”
Zobayan: “Just checked not the best day tomorrow but it is not as bad as today.”
Taylor: “Good Evening KB tomorrow Sunday January 26 Please note requested revised departure 845 heli ready, 9:00 am departure, SNA CMA SNA N72EX Ara, Driver 1 Gary, Driver 2 Robert, Pax KB GB Et al. … Return approx. 3pm ish. Advised weather could be an issue....”
Zobayan: “Copy Will advise on weather early morning.”
Catherine Brady, Bryant family personal assistant, in a National Transportation Safety Board interview: “That particular day, for Sunday, I actually changed the time the night before, probably around 6 or 7 p.m., because Kobe had decided he wanted to go to watch another team play before his game. So it was supposed to be a 9:45 departure, but the night before we changed it to a 9 a.m. departure.”
In his final public statement, Bryant tweets in response to Lakers star LeBron James passing him on the NBA’s all-time scoring list: “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother.”
Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020
Whitney Bagge, vice president at Island Express, to the NTSB: “Kobe was very particular on who flew him. He’s very particular on who drove him. … Ara had been flying Kobe for years and, you know, it was more — it had turned into like a friendship at that where he would call him ‘Mr. Pilot Man.’ … Vanessa [Bryant] loved Ara, and Kobe would even have Ara fly his girls by themselves. That’s how much he trusted a pilot to just take his daughter to a basketball game.”
Taylor to the NTSB: “[Kobe’s] relationship with Ara was warm and [friendly], and they trusted him. And he trusted him with his girls and family, which was paramount to him.”
NTSB notes from an interview with Tess Davidson, the pilot’s girlfriend: “Ara was not facing any stresses in the days prior to the accident. He was in good health. She had known him for 7 years. They had been living together for 7 years as well. He was ‘one of the only people [she] knew that was happy to go to work every day.’ Even on days he was off, he would go help out at work washing aircraft, or bringing lunch.”
The weight and balance sheet for the flight lists eight people scheduled to travel from John Wayne Airport in Orange County to Camarillo Airport in addition to Zobayan: Alyssa Altobelli, John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Kobe Bryant, Gianna Bryant, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester and Christina Mauser.
Text message thread between Zobayan, Ric Webb, OC Helicopters founder, Patti Taylor and others.
Zobayan: “Morning Weather looking ok.”
Webb: “I’ll be at SNA in :30 for a report.”
Taylor continues texting: “Ara how is weather looking for 9 departure”
Zobayan: “Should be OK.”
Webb: “I Agree.”
Taylor: “Copy Will inform them and good morning.”
Zobayan: “Heli at OC Standing by.”
A standard, everyday flight
Webb to the NTSB: “While we were waiting for Mr. Bryant to show up, I suggested a blue flight. [Ara] said that blue flight was John Wayne … Long Beach, Santa Monica, Malibu Pass, and then just about where that accident — that was the route that I suggested. He said he was going to go up and around. And he waved his finger across the map on his phone and indicated that he was going to Dodger Stadium, around Burbank, and was going to take the 118 around. On ForeFlight you can have a color image, and it shows where the clouds are at. And he indicated that he was going to be above and around those clouds. … [Ara] was fine. He was just regular Ara. He’d made his decision on which way he was going to go and we were just waiting for [Bryant]. The rest of the passengers were there. Standard, everyday flight.
Webb texts: “Wheels up.”
Kobe Bryant’s driver texts the group from Camarillo Airport: “Just started raining lightly here.”
Zobayan by radio to air traffic control: “And SoCal, for helicopter two echo x‐ray we gonna go ahead and start our climb to go above the, uh, layers and, uh, we can stay with you here.”
SoCal TRACON radar controller: “Two echo x‐ray, uh, where are ya?”
Zobayan: “Uh, just west of Van Nuys, two echo x‐ray.”
SoCal TRACON radar controller: “Two echo x‐ray, yeah, you’re, uh, still on a 1,200 code, uh, were you requesting flight following?”
Zobayan: “Yes sir, two echo x‐ray.”
SoCal TRACON radar controller: “Two echo x‐ray, where say intentions.”
Zobayan: “Climbing to 4,000, two echo x‐ray.”
SoCal TRACON radar controller: “And then whatya gonna do when ya get to altitude?”
The controller makes several more attempts to contact N72EX with no response.
A large boom
In a later email to the NTSB from a witness near the crash site: “There was zero visibility past the point where I saw it disappear into the low cloud at the trailhead. … I did hear it before that point but only looked up when the sound became so unusually loud as it approached more closely. I specifically watched and listened to see if it appeared to be having engine trouble since it was so low and slow.”
From an NTSB interview with another witness about 200 feet from the site: “Over the course of about 20 seconds the sound continued to get louder, when suddenly a blue and white helicopter emerged from the clouds passing from left to right directly to his left. He judged it to be moving fast, travelling on a forward and descending trajectory. It started to roll to the left such that he caught a glimpse of its belly. He observed it for between 1 and 2 seconds, before it impacted terrain about 50 ft below his position.”
A third eyewitness: “We heard the helicopter flying normally, but couldn’t really see it because it was extremely foggy and low clouds. I was thinking to myself of why a helicopter would be flying so low in very bad weather conditions. Then, all of a sudden, we heard a large BOOM.”
A 911 caller: “A helicopter crashed into a mountain. We heard it. And now I’m looking at the flames.”
Jerry Kocharian, drinking coffee outside a nearby church: “No one could survive that.”
Taylor, in a group text to Bryant’s driver at the destination: “Land?”
Driver: “Not yet.”
Bagge to the NTSB: “Patti called me asking if I could check to see where Ara was on the tracker. I checked and saw the tracker had stopped tracking Ara at 9:45 a.m. so I told her I would call her right back. … I screen shot the image of N72EX circling over Glendale and sent it to Patti thinking this is what had delayed him. I told her the weird thing though is that the tracker had stopped at 9:45 a.m. which is not normal and we were trying to reach Ara over the radio now. … I kept refreshing the tracker praying that it was just broken.”
Webb in a text to the pilot: “Ara, you okay.”
Bagge to the NTSB: “Angel [an Island Express employee] attempted calling Ara and Garret [another employee] a few times with no success and both went to voicemail, I text him back right away ‘Go to the Emergency Response Manual now.’”
L.A. County Fire dispatch over radio: “We do have one copter down with medium brush. We do have smoke.”
Looking for survivors
The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department tweets: “Downed aircraft is a helicopter. Flames extinguished. #Malibu deputies at crash site looking for survivors, 4200 blk Las Virgenes Rd.”
Then-Clippers coach Doc Rivers is with the team in Orlando, Fla.: “[KCBS sports anchor] Jim Hill called me and said ‘Hey, I think something tragic has happened to Kobe, Doc. I’m not sure, I’ll call you back.’ That was before anyone knew. And then he called me back and confirmed it and within five minutes it got out. So I was on my way to the bus at that time. … When I walked in that locker room it was a devastated locker room. It was not a locker room that should be playing basketball. It was a locker room that needed counseling, that needed hugs.”
Lakers great Magic Johnson: “I talked to [Lakers controlling owner] Jeanie [Buss] and they had heard it, but it wasn’t confirmed. So, I’m already starting to get emotional just hearing it.
“Your stomach just turned upside down, because I was like, ‘Nah, not Kobe.’ Nobody could think that. Nah. He’s invincible. He’s Kobe, you know? He’s Superman, you know?”
TMZ tweet: “BREAKING: Kobe Bryant Has Died In A Helicopter Crash”
Los Angeles County Fire Department public information officer on Twitter: “*AIRCRAFT DOWN* Battalion 5 units working a multiple fatality helicopter crash in #Calabasas the #NTSB is currently in route to this incident. @LASDHQ is on scene and assisting.”
Magic Johnson: “Then sure enough, it was confirmed and man I just broke down. You know him. You’ve seen him. You watched him for the 20 years. You met him when he first got here. I remember it like it was yesterday Jerry West picking up the phone and telling me. ‘I just seen the greatest workout that I’ve ever seen in my life.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Nah, Jerry.’ He said, ‘I’m telling you I had Michael Cooper in here and you ask Coop. You know how great Coop is as a defender and this dude was going to work.’ He said, ‘Earvin, he can do it all. He can do it all not only because he can score, but he can handle the ball to get to his spots.’ That’s what Jerry was impressed with.”
James Parker, coach of the girls basketball team at Pacifica Christian High, was at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks: “I heard somebody say, ‘Kobe got in a helicopter crash. Knowing how Kobe gets back and forth, that’s when my heart sank. … The gym just got quiet. You could hear people quietly crying. You could hear people saying, ‘No. No. No.’ Finally, someone speaks up and says, ‘Will everybody kneel and bow your heads so we can pray?’ ”
Eric Rosenthal, a local high school assistant coach also at the academy: “The referee immediately called the game. Then they called all the games. It was silence for a couple of seconds, everywhere. … My brothers said they could hear the screaming and crying coming out of the [Team Mamba’s room]. It was like nothing they’ve ever heard.”
Former Miami Heat All-Star Dwyane Wade tweets: “Nooooooooooo God please No!”
In tears all day
The Lakers are flying home from a game in Philadelphia, traveling somewhere over the Southwest, when whispers begin filtering through the plane. Coach Frank Vogel stands at the front to confirm Bryant has died.
Lakers great Jerry West: “I was sitting in my house reading the newspaper … and I think one of my sons called me and said that a helicopter crashed and they suspected that it was Kobe Bryant. So immediately we turned on the TV ... I sat there and sat there and sat there and I said, ‘Oh God, please don’t.’ And when it came out, I was devastated. Sometimes when you see people of great accomplishments and something that you’ve personally had an opportunity to deal with personally and watch him grow up and admire where they got in their life, all of those things just kept going on in your head — always. I just kept saying, ‘No, this can’t be true. This can’t be true.’ Honestly, that’s pretty much where I was at that moment. And then when it was confirmed, I was in tears all day. I was in tears all day. For a man of my age  to feel that way…It was just so personal. To watch the joy that he brought to me, because of the lengths we went to get him, but also to watch where he had risen in terms of his notoriety and his fame all over the world.”
Lakers forward Jared Dudley tweets from the plane: “Speechless on this plane ride home! A sad day bruh! RIP Kobe Bean Bryant! Prayers go to his family and loved ones … This doesn’t even feel real man.”
Joe Biden mentions the crash during a presidential campaign event in Des Moines, Iowa: “It makes you realize that you’ve got to make every day count, every single day count. The point is, none of us are exempt.”
Jeanie Buss, Linda Rambis and other Lakers executives gather at the team facility in El Segundo. The team opens the gates to the parking lot and places a large, white canvas with a watermarked image of Bryant out front. Fans begin showing up, writing messages on the canvas with Sharpies.
Sales clerk at Orange County bookstore that sold out of photo books featuring Bryant within an hour of his death: “It’s kind of morose but people just came in 10 or 15 minutes after we found out about it.”
Inside Staples Center, during a dress rehearsal for the Grammy Awards scheduled for that night, workers move Bryant’s retired jerseys side-by-side and illuminate them with spotlights. All other retired jerseys are cloaked.
Lakers great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar tweets: “Most people will remember Kobe as the magnificent athlete who inspired a whole generation of athletes. But I will always remember him as a man who was much more than an athlete.”
In front of a Clippers banner outside of the team’s locker room inside Amway Center in Orlando, Rivers speaks to reporters: “We’re all Lakers today.”
Sam Krutonog is among thousands of fans who congregate outside Staples Center, creating an impromptu memorial with flowers, candles and pictures: “My grandpa is 82 and just had two heart attacks, and he was crying on the phone. It’s just so terrible.”
At the Mamba Sports Academy, the day’s games have been canceled and the parking lot blocked off with traffic cones while a shrine of flowers, candles and a Lakers flag grows.
Shaquille O’Neal, who teamed with Bryant on the Lakers to win three NBA titles, tweets: “There’s no words to express the pain Im going through with this tragedy of losing my niece Gigi & my brother @kobebryant I love u and will be missed. … IM SICK RIGHT NOW.”
Former President Barack Obama tweets: “Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act. To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents.”
Tragedies like this
After the Lakers’ team plane lands at Los Angeles International Airport, LeBron James is pictured wiping away tears on the tarmac.
Richard Bettencourt stands outside the Lakers’ facility with his daughter Jazmyn: “The rock just dropped on everybody. Then when you thought that was bad, as a father hearing that his daughter was on the helicopter as well, it brings it closer to home than you think.”
Rivers speaks to Clippers players in the locker room before their game in Orlando: “Some of you may not feel anything right now. It may come out during the game. We’re not prepared, nobody is for tragedies like this. Nobody is.”
Daryl Osby, L.A. County Fire Chief, at a televised news conference: “Our firefighters on scene indicated there was a debris field in steep terrain with a quarter-acre brush fire.”
Alex Villanueva, L.A. County Sheriff, at the same news conference: “There were no survivors.”
Clippers guard Landry Shamet collects the opening tip in the Orlando game, moves across half court, then stands still with head bowed, dribbling out a 24-second shot-clock violation. The Florida crowd realizes he is paying tribute to Bryant and stands to applaud.
Jennifer Homendy, NTSB board member during a news conference in Washington: “Our team will be looking at the history of the pilot … we’ll be looking at maintenance records of the helicopter, we will be looking at records of the owner and operator of the helicopter and a number of other things that we look at as part of the investigation.”
Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg at a televised town hall: “I think it’s a reminder that our lives are often touched by people we’ve never even met.”
Rivers after the Clippers beat the Magic: “Man, I tell you that game, I had no interest in that game. I remember timeouts, didn’t have much to say. I tried at halftime to say, ‘Hey guys, listen. I mean, listen, I don’t know, we’re here, let’s win this game, let’s honor him,’ but that’s bullcrap. … Other than that neither team cared. Even one of the refs made just an awful call and I didn’t say anything and he looked over and I was like, ‘What do you want me to do, bro.’ And he actually said — I can’t think of his name — he said, ‘Man, I don’t have anything tonight.’ It affected everybody. It was definitely the hardest sports night of our lives for players.”
Clippers coach Doc Rivers reflects on the death of Kobe Bryant following a game against the Magic in Orlando on Jan. 26, 2020.
Lakers supporter Irvin Guillermo is among hundreds of fans gathering near the crash site: “I would have never thought of something like this happening. This guy won an Oscar. He had so much more to offer.”
Alicia Keys speaks on stage as the Grammy Awards begin at Staples Center: “We’re all feeling crazy sadness right now because earlier today, Los Angeles, America and the whole wide world lost a hero. And we’re literally standing here, heartbroken, in the house that Kobe Bryant built.”
Purple and gold
The Ferris wheel at Santa Monica Pier lights up in purple and gold to honor Bryant, his daughter and the other victims. So do L.A. City Hall and pylons at the entrance to LAX.
Rev. Anthony Vu addresses evening Mass at Our Lady Queen of Angels in Newport Beach, where Bryant was a parishioner: “It’s a reminder to all of us that life can be very unpredictable and fragile.”
Outside Staples Center, thousands of Lakers fans remain in the dark, some shouting, “Thank you, Kobe!”
Villanueva speaks at a follow-up news conference: “We’re now faced with well-wishers and people mourning who have descended on the area, on the residential community and even the crash site itself. We have to reiterate it is off limits to everybody, except the first responders and investigators. So we now have personnel deployed to get people away from there. They cannot access the crash site. It is in very rough terrain, very dangerous, even in daylight, much less in the middle of the night. We just want people to stay away.”
More than 100 Newport Coast residents congregate at a community park to mourn their neighbor with a candlelight vigil on a chilly winter night. They sing “Amazing Grace,” then break into a chant familiar to fans at Staples Center: “Kobe, Kobe, Kobe.”
Los Angeles Times staff writers Andrew Greif and Broderick Turner contributed to this story. Additional sources include past Times staff reports and NTSB files from the agency’s investigation into the crash.
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