By Donald R. Winslow
SEATTLE, WA (March 18, 2014) – A pilot and a photographer were killed this morning when a helicopter operated by KOMO-TV crashed at Fisher Plaza in downtown Seattle, just south of the Space Needle, while taking off from the station's rooftop helipad.
The photographer was identified as Bill Strothman, 62. KING5-TV reports that Strothman worked for KOMO-TV for many years and that his son, Dan, also works for the station. Strothman, who was now working for KOMO-TV as a contractor, had been an NPPA member and in 1991 he was the Region 11 Television News Photographer of the Year. Mike Baker reported that Strothman had won 13 Emmy Awards during his career.
The pilot has been identified as Gary Pfitzner, 59, who was also a contractor.
An eyewitness told KING5-TV that the Eurocopter AStar helicopter had just landed and had stayed on the station's helipad with the chopper running for a couple of minutes. It was taking off again when it crashed.
The witness said the helicopter was lifting off from the station's roof when the trouble started at about 30 feet above the helipad.
"It sounded wrong, something changed," the witness, a construction worker, said.
(Photograph of Bill Strothman, left, courtesy of the Strothman family)
The sound of the helicopter's engine rapidly changed pitch, and then it crashed to the ground, he told KING5-TV.
Seattle Fire officials said the helicopter dropped on top of four cars when it spun down and crashed at 7:53 a.m. PDT. One man, age 38, who was in one of the cars is now reported in critical condition.
An eyewitness who is a KOMO-TV security guard said that at first he assumed the motorist, who was in a red car, was dead from the flames. The guard said the roaring fuel fire prevented anyone from being able to approach the crash. But then after about five minutes the burning man crawled out from underneath the door of the red car and started to drag himself across the street. The security guard, along with some of his coworkers, then went to get the man, he said.
The victim has burns over more than 50 percent of his body, fire officials said, which is life-threatening. He is currently being cared for in the emergency room at Harborview Medical Center, which is a Level One trauma and burn center, as doctors try to determine his condition and his family travels to the hospital from Bellingham.
The occupants of the other two vehicles were said to have escaped without injuries. The two people in the helicopter died at the scene, fire officials said.
The helicopter's crew had been covering a water main break in Covington, WA, and broadcasting live to KOMO-TV and KING-TV in the minutes before it returned to the KOMO-TV station and then crashed.
When firefighters arrived at the crash they saw a huge plume of black smoke fueled by a ball of fire, and the burned man was down in the street near the wreckage. A spokesperson said when the first responders arrived, the helicopter occupants were already deceased. Witnesses said the burned man had crossed the street to roll in grass to extinguish the flames on his body, and that a stream of burning fuel was running down the street as the fire spread.
Dramatic video shot by a construction worker on his smart phone showed the spreading fire and the fuel, making a river of fire, flowing down the curb of the street toward a storm sewer drain.
Scott Jensen, chief photographer for KING5-TV in Seattle, told News Photographer magazine this morning that the helicopter is owned by a third party and is contracted for use by television stations.
The helicopter is owned and operated by Helicopters Inc., also known as Heli Inc. It is the largest company in America for leasing helicopters and crews to television news stations. Jensen said the chopper has been in a joint operating agreement with KING5-TV since KING5-TV's helicopter pilot retired in January. He said KING5's chopper has not been in use since then.
"I don't staff KING5 photographers on the KOMO helicopter," Jensen said, because the helicopter operates with a provided crew. The two fatalities on the helicopter appear to have both been employees of Helicopters Inc., although the photographer on board was a former KOMO-TV photographer who had left the station to work for Helicopters Inc.
"The entire NPPA community grieves for the tragic loss suffered by our colleagues at Seattle's KOMO-TV," NPPA executive director Chip Deale said today from the NPPA News Video Workshop in Norman, OK.
"The death of one photojournalist emotionally impacts the entire profession. We send our thoughts and condolences to the loved ones of those that died, as well as those with whom they worked."
Late in the afternoon as National Transportation Safety Board investigators combed over the site, the bodies of the two fatalities were still inside the helicopter's wreckage, which was covered with a white tarp.
The helicopter that was involved in the crash was not KOMO-TV's regular aircraft, Kara Kostanich reported later in the day during the station's ongoing coverage of the tragedy. KOMO-TV's regular helicopter was out of service while some new equipment was being installed in the aircraft, she said.
KIRO-TV7 shares hanger space with KOMO-TV's aircraft, and Bob Jordan reported on Twitter that their Chopper7 has been grounded pending a thorough review of flight safety. He also said that the helicopter involved in the crash was previously flown by WBZ-TV in Boston.
In the empty hanger space where KOMO-TV's helicopter would have returned at the end of the day, someone placed a bucket of pink flowers on the vacant chopper pad.
KOMO-TV is owned by the Sinclair Broadcast Group, Inc. The station released a statement this afternoon.
"We are deeply saddened by this tragedy, Janene Drafs said. "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." Drafs is the station's general manager. She said that grief counselors were being provided for employees, and thanked other stations in the market for reaching out to KOMO-TV with their support.
Today's crash is the worst television news helicopter crash since at 2007 when two helicopters operated by KNXV-TV and KTVK-TV collided in the skies over downtown Phoenix, AZ, while covering a police chase. Both pilots and both photojournalists on the two aircraft. Scott Bowerbank, Jim Cox, Craig Smith, and Rick Krolak died in the collision and subsequent crash.
BELOW: Fire officials and investigators on the scene of the crash this morning. The helicopter's tail rotor can be seen to the left of the red car. Photograph by Karen Ducey