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By Mike Baker, The Seattle Times

SEATTLE — Federal investigators worked Wednesday to painstakingly deconstruct a KOMO-TV news helicopter and determine what caused the aircraft to crash onto a Seattle street Tuesday, killing the pilot and a photographer.

That task is complicated by the sheer intensity of the accident, which engulfed the helicopter in flames and left the body of the aircraft an unrecognizable heap of rubble. Crews have been sifting through the wreckage to determine which components remained intact.

“A lot of those parts and pieces are simply gone,” said Dennis Hogenson, acting deputy chief of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Western Pacific Region.

Hogenson said there’s always a possibility that crews wouldn’t be able to pinpoint the nature of any mechanical issue — if that’s what caused the accident — because of the extent of the damage. But he was optimistic that wouldn’t happen.

“I’m confident that we’re going to figure this out,” Hogenson said.

Investigators were still exploring all possible causes, reviewing maintenance records, collecting video from the Seattle Police Department, assessing witness statements and interviewing construction-crane operators in the area. Technical experts from both the helicopter and engine manufacturers were on hand to help.

Hogenson said the pilot had approximately 900 hours of experience in the helicopter model — a Eurocopter AS350 — that crashed and some 7,700 hours of flight time overall.

The last significant maintenance inspection on the aircraft occurred in January, and Hogenson said there were no outstanding maintenance issues and no reports of problems when the pilot returned from an initial flight earlier Tuesday.

The accident occurred about 7:40 a.m. Tuesday as the helicopter was taking off from the rooftop helipad at Fisher Plaza across Broad Street from the Space Needle.

The area surrounding the crash site includes cranes that loom high above construction sites. Hogenson said the pilot typically communicates with those crane operators during landings and takeoffs, and the pilot had contacted one crane operator shortly before takeoff, simply notifying the person that the helicopter was departing.

Hogenson said there’s no indication at this point that the cranes had anything to do with the crash. Witnesses have said the helicopter barely started its takeoff before tumbling to the street.

The crash killed pilot Gary Pfitzner, 59, of Issaquah, and longtime photojournalist Bill Strothman, 62, of Bothell.

Richard Newman, a 38-year-old from Seattle who was severely injured when the helicopter fell onto his car on Broad Street, is improving and breathing on his own, hospital officials said Wednesday. He remains in serious condition at the Harborview Medical Center intensive-care unit.

Some witnesses have said the helicopter made an unusual noise as it lifted off.

Jan Drago, a former member of the Seattle City Council, said she arrived near the KOMO studios Wednesday just before the crash so that she could get a movie from a nearby convenience store. As she got out of her vehicle, she had a clear view of the helicopter pad and said she felt the aircraft was out of place.

“The helicopter was not in the middle of the helipad like it would normally be,” Drago said. She has lived in Seattle since 1980 and said she is very familiar with the sight of the helicopter atop the building.

Drago said the helicopter was sitting near the edge of the pad in the direction of the Space Needle. Still, she convinced herself that it was routine and went to pick up her movie, only to have the crash occur moments later.

Chris McColgan, 26, was in his vehicle at the stoplight right below the helicopter pad. He looked up once he started to hear the helicopter and said he could see the tail near the short fence that surrounds the pad.

However, McColgan said it didn’t seem like the main body of the helicopter was close to the edge when it began to lift off. He watched as the helicopter’s tail swung back and forth and then spun out of view before the helicopter pulled away from the pad and then tumbled to the street below.

Accidents involving news helicopters have happened before in Washington. In 1999, a KIRO-TV helicopter collided with another helicopter above Lake Union, but both choppers managed to land safely. In 1985, two people were killed when a news helicopter in Spokane crashed.

Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration issued new rules for helicopter safety, requiring operators to improve pilot training, upgrade safety equipment and follow stricter flying procedures in bad weather.

Mike Siegel/Seattle Times/MCT

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