Helicopter crash near the Space Needle Tuesday morning.


Helicopter crash near the Space Needle Tuesday morning.

SEATTLE — Two people died and one person was seriously injured when a Seattle news station helicopter crashed Tuesday morning near the Space Needle.

KOMO 4 News in Seattle confirmed that a news helicopter used in a joint partnership between KOMO 4 and KING 5 News crashed just before 7:45 a.m. on Broad Street near the Space Needle and erupted into a fireball, setting two cars and a pickup truck on fire.

Seattle Fire Department officials said only the tail of the chopper remained, and damage to the vehicles on the ground was extensive. Witnesses at the scene told National Transportation Safety Board Commission officials the helicopter made a screeching or whining noise shortly after takeoff.

Two people were killed in the crash, and a 38-year-old, Richard Newman of Seattle,  who was in a car set afire, managed to get out of his car and ran from the vehicle with his clothes on fire. He rolled on a nearby grassy hill to try to put out the flames.  He was taken to Harborview Medical Center with burns over 20 percent of his body. He is in serious but stable condition. Doctors initially said he had been moved to intensive care and would require surgery.


Deceased photographer Bill Strothman

KOMO 4 News named the deceased as longtime photographer Bill Strothman and helicopter pilot Gary Pfitzner.

Another woman in one of the cars on the ground walked away from the scene and walked to the Seattle Police Department’s West Precinct. Witnesses also spotted a man running from the crash, but he was found later without injuries.

KOMO’s usual AIR 4 helicopter was being outfitted with new equipment. The chopper that crashed was a backup for the station.

Helicopter Inc., a St. Louis area company that leased out the chopper to KOMO, issued a statement extending sympathies to families of the victim and saying it will cooperate “fully and completely” with the NTSB investigation. Company headquarters flew their flags at half-staff Tuesday.

NTSB officials said Tuesday afternoon the helicopter — A Eurocopter AS 350–  had just returned from a trip to Covington, Wash., to refuel before heading off to Renton. Witnesses said the helicopter was taking off when they heard a screeching noise coming from the chopper. The helicopter then lost control.

“It spun around like a top,” witness Tyler King said.

Other witnesses said the helicopter lifted up from the roof at KOMO 4 News, touched down, and then took off again. The helicopter then spun around and crashed onto Broad Street.

Kyle Moore, a spokesman for the Seattle Fire Department, said initial calls came in of an incident near the Space Needle without rescue and firefighters aware that a helicopter had crashed. But the gravity of the scene quickly dawned upon firefighters when they arrived to the Space Needle.

“We knew immediately it was a large crash,” Moore said. “It was a huge fire.”

The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration were investigating the crash.

Broad Street near the Space Needle was expected to be closed throughout the day. King County Metro bus routes 3 and 4 were rerouted during the investigation. Fourth Avenue near the Space Needle was also closed. Fifth Avenue North was expected to open by 10 a.m.

KOMO 4 News staff members reported seeing smoke and “high flames” coming from Fisher Plaza. Employees reporting on the accident called the scene surreal, and a blow to the KOMO 4 team.


Helicopter pilot Gary Pfitzner.

Reporter Corwin Haeck said the sound of the chopper taking off from KOMO’s roof was always a welcome noise in the newsroom. Never before had the sound been followed by such sadness.

“We come to work every day knowing we have to report on tragedy, but it’s never been this close to home,” said Haeck. “This is a news story but also a personal story.”

The Space Needle, Chihuly Garden and Glass and the EMP Museum were closed to visitors shortly after the crash, and were slated to remain closed the rest of the day.

KIRO 7 Eyewitness News grounded their television helicopter following the crash, pending a flight-safety review. It was unsure how long  the helicopter would be grounded, and Mayor Ed Murray said his office would investigate the use of all helicopters in the city.

The NTSB requested anyone who saw or heard the crash to contact the Seattle Police Department to help with the follow-up investigation.