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Investigation continues in fatal news helicopter crash
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Investigation continues in fatal news helicopter crash

Investigation continues in fatal news helicopter crash
Smoke from the crash is seen from the 2800 block of Third Avenue at 7:41 a.m. (Casey McNerthney/KIRO 7)

Investigation continues in fatal news helicopter crash

The news helicopter had just stopped at a helipad to refuel on its way to another assignment when it crashed and burst into flames yards from the Space Needle in the heart of Seattle, killing the two men on board and seriously injuring a third man who was on fire when he escaped from his car.

It may be months before federal investigators know what caused the chopper to plummet at a busy intersection, setting three vehicles ablaze and spewing burning fuel down the street during the Tuesday morning commute.

The KOMO-TV flight was one of many helicopter flights that take off and land in Seattle's downtown. Mayor Ed Murray said officials would review rules for helicopter pads in the city to determine if any changes need to be made.

Witnesses reported hearing unusual noises coming from the aircraft as it lifted off after refueling, said Dennis Hogenson, deputy regional chief of the Western Pacific Region for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Click here to see photos of Pfitzner and Strothman

They also said the aircraft rotated counterclockwise before it crashed near the Seattle Center campus, which is home to the Space Needle, restaurants and performing arts centers.

Bo Bain, an excavation foreman at a nearby construction project, watched the helicopter land as usual, one of many flights he has watched come and go in recent months. But he said something sounded different when the aircraft left the helipad Tuesday morning.

"It pitched sideways. It was off balance, and you could tell right away something wasn't right," Bain said. "The helicopter was struggling to stay up. It spun around, hit the top of the tree and landed on the street."

Seconds later, he said: "It was just a fireball. The whole thing burst into flames. I saw people running from their cars."

Hogenson said a preliminary report on the crash is expected in five days, followed by a fuller report with a probable cause in up to a year.

KOMO identified the pilot as Gary Pfitzner, of Issaquah. The other man killed in the crash was Bill Strothman, a former longtime KOMO photographer. Both men were working for Cahokia, Ill.-based Helicopters Inc., which owned the Eurocopter AS350 helicopter. The aircraft was leased jointly by KOMO and KING-TV.

The helicopter was a temporary replacement for one that's in the shop for an upgrade, KOMO reported.

Firefighters who arrived at the scene before 8 a.m. found a "huge black cloud of smoke" and two cars and a pickup truck engulfed in flames, Seattle Fire Department spokesman Kyle Moore said.

Fuel running down the street also was on fire, and crews worked to stop it before it entered the sewer.

An injured man managed to free himself from a burning car and was taken to Harborview Medical Center, Moore said. The man was on fire and KOMO reported that one of its building security guards, Brian Post, ran toward the fire to help.

"I used my hand at first and then his jacket to get the flames out," Post, a former police officer, told the station.

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

Two others who were in vehicles that were struck by the helicopter were uninjured.

KOMO is a block from the Space Needle and is surrounded by high-rise office and apartment buildings. Workers at the station rushed to the window when they heard the crash. KOMO reporters were then in the position of covering their colleagues' deaths.

One of them, Denise Whitaker, said on the street shortly after the crash: "It is a difficult time for all of us this morning."

News anchor Dan Lewis described Strothman as someone "who really knew how his pictures could tell a million words."

"He was just a true gentleman," Lewis said on the air. "We're going to miss you guys."

The Strothman family said in a statement that the former KOMO photographer was a "great man, a kind soul, a devoted husband, a loving father and brother."

Mark Pfitzner said in a statement that his brother Gary loved adventure, to travel and to fly. He was the oldest of seven kids and "took great care of his brothers and sister."

Other cities have experienced helicopter crashes as TV stations rush to cover the news from above major cities.

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.

Current rules in Seattle allow helipads to be used downtown and in some commercial zones and industrial areas. They can be used only for public service, emergency medical care and for news agencies, mayor's office spokesman Jeff Reading said.

Two news helicopters collided in midair in Phoenix in 2007 as the aircraft covered a police chase, sending fiery wreckage plummeting onto a park. Four people in the helicopters were killed. The crash prompted changes at the stations in how they operated their helicopter crews.

 

 

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  • The 2013 Corrine Brown Invitational Golf Tournament was advertised “to benefit the COMTO Jacksonville Chapter Scholarship Fund and other community non-profits”, but the head of COMTO says they have no record of any money coming in from the event. Testimony Friday in the federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown has focused on events allegedly funded by donations to a “sham” charity, One Door For Education, and whether those events actually did anything for charitable giving. An FBI Special Agent on the case previously told the court that bank and financial records showed more than $55,000 from One Door was used toward this golf tournament at TPC Sawgrass. The event took place during the same time frame that the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials- or COMTO- was holding an annual conference in Jacksonville, and the President of COMTO at the time did attend the event. Current COMTO President and CEO Brad Mims testified that their records show One Door made no donation to their scholarship fund, either at the national or local level. When prosecutors asked what a $25,000 donation to the organization directly would have meant, Mims said it breaks down to five or six scholarships. Brown’s defense, James Smith III, questioned Mims whether he was at that event, and he was not. He added that he could not speak to any networking or future donation opportunities that may have been discussed at the event, only that their records did not reflect any hard giving. FULL COVERAGE:The federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown Another event that allegedly tapped One Door funds- about $15,000 worth- is a luxury box at a Jaguars-Redskins game in DC. The head of the Florida Democratic Party, Stephen Bittel, says he paid more than $11,000 for his private plane to take people he believed to be One Door donors to what he thought was a fundraiser in DC. He also says he didn’t know Brown herself would be on the plane for the ride up to DC. Prosecutors say there was no fundraising done during the game.  One of the people who was invited on the plane along with his family was Jack Hanania. Hanania says he had refused a requested $10,000-$12,000 donation to Brown’s campaign, but when he heard about One Door’s mission to help youth in education, he agreed to contribute $7,000.  “Corrine knows how to raise money,” he says. Hanania told the court after he donated, he was invited to the game- including on the plane with Brown- but his understanding was that these were separate. He told prosecutors he believed at the time that his donation to One Door was going to charity, and the event was being covered by other dollars. An email from Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons showed reference to a FedEx label to send the “payment” Hanania was making. That same email inquired who Hanania would be bringing on the plane with him, in reference to the football game. Hanania says he understood the payment to refer to his One Door donation, and not anything connected to the game itself- although it’s a distinction that Smith pointed out is far from clear on paper. Prosecutors have also frequently questioned an annual reception held in Brown’s honor in conjunction with- although not affiliated with- the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s Annual Leadership Conference, which allegedly gets tens of thousands of dollars in One Door money. Smith has worked to show that there are valuable networking and development opportunities at this annual event- even if the focus itself is not on raising scholarship money. Tasha Cole, a senior official with the CBCF who oversees scholarships and charitable giving, says there was no record of funding from One Door to go either toward CBCF scholarships or tables at their conference dinners. Marva Brown Johnson- who was with Bright House Networks at the time- says she paid for ALC attendance and tables through One Door, though. She says she was inspired by Brown to attend the conference, and ultimately the conference inspired future charitable interests and giving. Proosecutors have checks and invoices that show tens of thousands of dollars from Bright House to One Door to go toward various conference expenses. Brown Johnson is one of a few donors who testified on Friday that they were aware that some of the money they were giving was not going to scholarships, and would instead be used on various expenses connected to putting on events. Bright House Network, for example, cut a $10,000 check to sponsor Brown’s golf tournament. Another donor gave tens of thousands of dollars toward Brown’s reception at the annual ALC conference and the veteran’s even Brown also hosted that week. Richard Lipsky owns some hospital facilities that were working to open their doors to veterans who were struggling with the VA, and he admitted he believed Brown could help him with that process. In terms of the $20,000 from the hospitals and $5,000 personal check he cut to One Door, though, he knew that was to support various events with catering, entertainment, and other areas. In fact, put an additional $4,290 toward an event after getting a call from either Corrine Brown or her daughter Shantrel that something happened with a portion of a catering bill, asking for his help to cover it. Some $90,000 was given by the Picerne Development Corporation to One Door- at least some in part to also host events. Director of Government Affairs Don Miller says the requests for funding from Brown and her staff to the head of the company, Bob Picerne, became so frequent that he actually tried to cut of communication at some point. “I kind of felt like he was being taken advantage of,” Miller said. Overall, even the donors who knew they were at least in part funding the expenses of running various events, they all also shared an expectation that excess funds, as well as their other contributions, would be going to scholarships.
  • There have been seven different witnesses, but one consistent answer- those who donated or orchestrated donations to One Door For Education wouldn’t have done so if they knew the money wouldn’t be going to charity, as prosecutors claim. A flurry of witnesses has been led through questioning by the US Attorney’s Office prosecuting team during the first two days of the federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown. Among the seven over the two days, the theme emerging is that donors and those helping them believed in Brown, and were willing to take her at her word as she vouched for One Door. Prosecutors say instead of the donations going toward scholarship and opportunities for children, though, the money was going to events and the personal expenses of Brown and a few others. As each witness took the stand to speak of the trust they had in Brown, her defense attorney continued to push his own theme- that Brown herself wouldn’t have had any reason to believe anything wrong was taking place. FULL COVERAGE: The federal fraud trial of now-former Congresswoman Corrine Brown John and Bob Picerne are brothers in the Central Florida area. Bob Picerne says he met Brown about 20 years ago and gradually formed a professional and personal relationship. He has a passion for helping children who are going through foster care and helping families who want to adopt, but can’t afford it. When his company gave to One Door, Picerne believed it would be toward advancing educational opportunities. He didn’t deal with many of the details of the transactions or with personally writing the checks, but in all, the company gave about $90,000 over three years, including $5,000 to cover printing for a commemorative edition of a magazine featuring Brown- a check that they made out to One Door, with the cover ultimately marking the magazine as funded by a re-election campaign. John Picerne met Brown through his brother, and he says she was able to help his business using her relationship with Naval Station Mayport. She asked him for charitable giving two or three times, and there was a $10,000 check from Picerne to One Door. He says he gave that money because he trusted Brown and believed she was doing good things. The defense continues to try to drive a wedge between Brown and any knowledge of wrongdoing with One Door funds, and Bob Picerne confirmed that he never spoke with Brown about One Door specifically. John Picerne said he believes he found out about One Door through Brown, but most of his communication about the donations would have been with Brown’s Chief of Staff Ronnie Simmons. In fact, Brown’s reputation appears to have kept donations flowing, even after potential signs of problems. Gasper Lazzara- a longtime orthodontist turned business man who has developed orthodontic schools and operates a family foundation focused on healthcare and education for children- says he’s known Brown for about 15 years, since they met at a Jacksonville University groundbreaking. Since then, she has solicited him for donations to summer camps, Edward Waters College, and other causes. In 2012, he says Brown talked to him about a new charity- One Door- and he agreed to invest in a specific program he believed would provide computers to students during the summer session. When his daughter took over the family foundation, she raised two issues. The first was when Simmons apparently asked them to make the above mentioned check out to One Door, instead of the school district. An email from Lazzara’s daughter to Simmons said they didn’t understand Simmons request to pay the Community Rehabilitation Center, and they just wanted to make sure the money was actually going toward computers for students. Simmons responded that he would get with the Congresswoman, but then never responded. The second issue surfaced when Lazzara’s daughter started doing research and found One Door was not, in fact, a registered 501(c)(3), as they had represented themselves. Despite that, Lazzara says he kept donating to the group, because he “absolutely” trusted Brown. This was another area where Smith jumped, asking what Lazzara did when he learned One Door was not a registered 501(c)(3). Lazzara couldn’t remember telling Brown directly, believing instead that his daughter communicated the problem with Simmons. Some on Brown’s staff apparently not only told these prospective donors that One Door was a registered non-profit, but put forward some documentation.  The first big check in One Door’s account came from a PAC backed by a lobbying firm where Brown’s daughter, Shantrel Brown, worked. Tandy Bondi worked with some of the administrative elements of that PAC and did some of research ahead of the $25,000 donation. Bondi says she couldn’t find that the group was a registered 501(c)(3), and when she asked Simmons, he sent her an attachment about One Door’s IRS Employer Identification Number- which does not grant non-profit status- and a one-page note about the history of the group that explicitly said they were a 501(c)(3). Another person who orchestrated a donation- Husein Cumber with Florida East Coast industry- says Brown approached him first about a donation to her legal fund to help her redistricting fight, and when he declined, she asked instead for a donation for One Door. Cumber says the way Brown described the group seemed to be a “natural fit” for the business’s charitable giving, so he said to send a W9 and they would consider and process a donation. Cumber says a W9 is required under their corporate guidelines to help ensure the organization is properly registered. Ultimately, that W9 was sent, and Cumber allowed a $10,000 donation. The legal fund was also apparently the destination for a small number of high value donations that went instead to One Door. Susie Wiles, a Public Affairs Consultant, says Brown approached her at an August 2015 meeting in Orlando, telling Wiles that she needed help funding a battle she was mounting against Congressional redistricting- which substantially changed Brown’s district from one that stretched from Jacksonville south to Orlando, to one that stretched west instead. Wiles agreed to help Brown put together a small fundraiser, and Brown suggested reaching out to the head of Haskell, Steve Halverson, to host the event at his office. When Wiles did, she says Halverson believed he could bring in the money Brown was seeking without even needing to hold an event. Wiles says Brown checked in once, and Wiles told her things were moving along. When Halverson came back with checks, Wiles asked Simmons what the “Pay To” line should say. When he didn’t answer right away, Wiles reached out to another Brown aide, Vonn Alexander. Alexander told her to have them made out to One Door, and sent to an address that turned out to be Simmons’ home. Simmons would later respond to make the check to him, and to send them to his home address.  Again there was cross examination, with Smith pointing out that Brown solicited for her legal fund and was not herself involved in any of the communication on where to ultimately send the money. One of the people solicited by Halverson is retiring CSX CEO Michael Ward. He wrote a $5,000 check he believed to be in some way going toward Brown’s re-election efforts, although wasn’t sure exactly where. He did not believe the money would ultimately be flagged for One Door. He had personally given $30,000 to One Door though. Ward was animated and passionate as he described for the court some of CSX’s charitable giving and his own, which focuses on improving neighborhoods where the railroad operates. “Education is the best gift you can give anyone,” he says. His tone was much more subdued when prosecutors started asking specifically about One Door, though. He first heard about the group from Brown, when she was asking for funding for a golf tournament sponsored by One Door. When he ultimately donated $10,000, though, Ward says he believed his money was going toward iPads for students and not the event. His wife ultimately signed another $10,000 check, but again, Ward says they believed their money was specifically for helping children. Ward would later give another $10,000 to Brown’s effort to send students to China on a cultural exchange. While prosecutors say donor money did, in fact, go toward the trip, the tens of thousands of dollars in excess funds were never returned. The response was the same across the board- all of these witnesses either donated or orchestrated the donation because of their trust in Brown, and none of them would have signed the checks if they believed the money wouldn’t be going to charity. WOKV is inside of the federal courthouse and will continue to bring you full details on the testimony. Follow our reporter Stephanie Brown on Twitter for updates during court recesses.
  • Former President George H.W. Bush was discharged from a hospital Friday, two weeks after being brought to the facility with a mild case of pneumonia, a spokesman for the 92-year-old said. >> Read more trending news Bush was treated for a mild case of pneumonia and chronic bronchitis before his discharge Friday morning, spokesman Jim McGrath said. “President and Mrs. Bush are very pleased to be home spending time with family and friends, and grateful for the outstanding care provided by his doctors and nurses,” he said. Bush was taken to Houston Methodist Hospital on April 14 with a persistent cough. Doctors determined that the 41st president had pneumonia and successfully treated him, McGrath said. Dr. Clint Doerr, a pulmonologist at Houston Methodist Hospital, said on Tuesday that despite Bush’s recovery, he continued to deal with chronic bronchitis, “a condition more prevalent with age.” “This means his airway has a constant, low-level of inflammation that can aggravate the symptoms of pneumonia,” Doerr said. McGrath said last week that Bush would remain hospitalized as a precaution ahead a scheduled trip to Maine with his wife, Barbara Bush. >> Related: George H.W. Bush gets a visit from son George W. Bush while in the hospital “President Bush feels terrific and is buoyed by regular visits from his family and phone calls with friends such as (former Vice  President) Dan Quayle,” he said. The hospitalization is the second this year for Bush. He was hospitalized for two weeks in January with a case of bacterial pneumonia. His wife, Barbara Bush, was also briefly hospitalized with viral bronchitis.
  • As tensions ramp up near the Korean Peninsula, here is a primer on North Korea, its leader and its people. Some facts The name: North Korea -- or formally, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea -- borders China, Russia and South Korea. Population: 25,115,311 (estimated as of July 2016) Area: North Korea is a little bigger than Virginia, with 46,000 square miles. Capital: The capital city is Pyongyang. An interesting fact: Pyongyang runs on its own time zone. It’s about 30 minutes behind Japan and South Korea. No ties: North Korea does not have diplomatic representation in the United States, nor does the U.S. have diplomatic representation in North Korea. Median age: North Korea’s median age is estimated to be 33.8 years. GNP: The gross domestic product, per capita, is $1,800. In the U.S., it’s $51,638.10 Leaders: North Korea is led by Kim Jong-Un. Since 1945, the country has been led by three generations of the same family: Kim Il-Sung, in 1945; then his son, Kim Jong-Il, upon his father’s death in 1994; then the current leader, Kim Jong-Un, upon his father’s death in 2011. Why are there two Koreas?From 1910 until the end of World War II, Japan controlled the Korean Peninsula. After the Japanese lost the war, the U.S. occupied the southern half of the peninsula and the Russians occupied the north half.  In 1945, Kim Il-Sung became the country’s first leader. In 1948, separate governments -- one in the north and one in the south -- formed after regional differences went unresolved. On June 25, 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea. The United Nations intervened with troops, and the “police action” (another name for a war), continued until 1953.  After a peace treaty was brokered, the country broke into two countries. South Korea becomes a prosperous capitalist nation, while North Korea remains a poor country. Why are tensions high now?The leaders of the country have vowed to test and threatened to use nuclear weapons. The North Korean military has tested nuclear missiles on at least five occasions -- twice in 2016. Can they attack nearby countries with nuclear weapons?They can when they make a warhead small enough to be delivered on a missile that is fired at an enemy. North Korea says it has done that, but there has been no verification of that by the U.N. or other countries. What are their neighbors doing?The U.S. has given South Korea an advanced missile defense system. Japan has put its military on high alert. China, which is an ally of North Korea, has warned North Korean officials to step back from provocative actions. Interesting facts about the country USA Today reports that North Koreans born after the Korean War tend to be shorter than South Koreans of the same age. About 2 inches shorter, in fact.  According to The Chosun Ilbo, men are encouraged to copy the hairstyle of the country’s leader, Kim Jong Un. No long hair. Women should copy the style of his wife, he reportedly said. North Korea claims it has a 100 percent literacy rate for both men and women, according to the CIA World Factbook. Only 3 percent of the roads in North Korea are paved. (CIA World Factbook.) You cannot become a citizen of North Korea unless one of your parents is a citizen. (CIA World Factbook.) The last election was held in the country on March 9, 2014. Kim Jong-Il won 100 percent of the vote. The next one is scheduled for March 2019.
  • The annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner is set for Saturday, and while most of Washington’s journalism elite will be on hand, one of its usual guests – the president of the United States -- won't be there. President Donald Trump will not attend the dinner, which customarily includes a roast of sorts of the commander in chief. The White House announced that Trump will be at a rally in Pennsylvania on Saturday night, not hobnobbing at the Washington Hilton Hotel. 'This wasn't a president that was elected to spend his time with reporters and celebrities,' White House deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on ABC's “This Week.” 'I think it's kind of naive of us to think that we can all walk into a room for a couple of hours and pretend that some of that tension isn't there.” If you don’t have a ticket but want to catch it, here’s how to watch. What time: 9:30 p.m. ET Saturday Where: The Washington Hilton Hotel What channel: C-SPAN is on channel 350 for DirecTV subscribers; Channel 230 on AT&T U-verse; Channel 210 on Dish Livestream: The dinner will be livestreamed on C-SPAN.org  Host: “The Daily Show’s” senior correspondent Hasan Minhaj is the host for the evening. “Hasan’s smarts, big heart and passion for press freedom make him the perfect fit for our event, which will be focused on the First Amendment and the importance of a robust and independent media,” White House Correspondents’ Association president Jeff Mason said in a statement. Has any president skipped it before? Yes, President Ronald Reagan missed the dinner in 1981, a few weeks after he was shot in an assassination attempt. Both Jimmy Carter and Richard Nixon skipped the dinners at times, Carter in 1978 and 1980 and Nixon in 1972 and 1974.  What else do they do at the dinner? The White House Correspondents’ Association hands out scholarships and awards. This year, awards are going to Greg Jaffe of the Washington Post, Edward Isaac-Dovere of Politico and David Fahrenthold of The Washington Post, along with Watergate reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

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