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Investigators to reassemble charred helicopter in search for cause of deadly Seattle crash

The NTSB will reassemble the wreckage of a KOMO TV helicopter at a hanger in Auburn as investigators seek the cause of Tuesday's deadly crash. (AP image)

Investigators have moved the wreckage of a crashed TV news helicopter to a hangar in Auburn, where they will reassemble it in hopes of determining what caused the KOMO TV chopper to plummet to the ground Tuesday morning.

Pilot Gary Pfitzner and photographer Bill Strothman died when the Eurocopter AS 350 fell from the sky after taking off from the roof of Fisher Plaza just across from the Space Needle.

Investigators have removed wreckage from the crash site on the Seattle Center lawn and Broad Street, but for the NTSB, the work continues.

“Right now, our primary goal is to identify witnesses, identify surveillance video that may be in the area and then also get the wreckage picked up, cleaned up from this location and moved to a hangar facility in Auburn where it’s a little more controlled,” says NTSB Deputy Regional Chief Dennis Hogenson.

Witnesses reported hearing “an unusual noise” coming from the helicopter as it took off, and then the helicopter quickly began to rotate before crashing into three cars on the ground, Hogenson says.

The helicopter is owned and operated by Helicopters Inc., a St. Louis-based company that specializes in providing news gathering aircraft to television stations nationwide.

Hogenson says the company maintains maintenance records there and is shipping them to investigators in Seattle.

“It’s a very popular helicopter, it is used in the ENG (electronic news gathering) world quite often and we do see these helicopters, there are quite a few based here in the Seattle area,” Hogenson says.

The helicopter, leased by KOMO TV, had reportedly just returned from shooting video in Covington and had refueled on the roof. It was heading to Renton when it crashed.

Investigators looking at the helipad and refueling station atop Fisher Plaza did not see anything unusual and it’s far too soon to speculate on any potential causes, Hogenson says.

“We’re still interviewing witnesses, our investigative team is looking into the mechanical as well as the environment as well as the pilot issues associated with this crash.”

Hogenson says the NTSB should issue an initial report on the crash within five days, but a final report with a determination of what caused the crash could take up to a year.

Former head of the NTSB, Mark Rosenker, tells KIRO Radio’s Morning News with Dave Ross that it’s amazing how the professional investigators are able to come into a situation like this. “Gather the evidence, take it to a secure location and then begin by going through each and every one of those parts by taking a look at what potentially could have happened.”

Even though this type of helicopter is not equipped with a black box, Rosenker says when investigators are finished, there will be little doubt as to the cause of the crash.

“We have the parts, we have the records, we will have the professional investigators there able to do what is necessary to understand what happened, determine what probable cause is and then make recommendations to prevent it from happening again,” says Rosenker.

Representatives from both the helicopter manufacturer and engine maker are both flying to Seattle to assist in the investigation, Hogenson says.

The NTSB is expected to have another update on Wednesday morning.

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