Helicopter crash investigation gets takeoff video

National Transportation Safety Board investigator Josh Cawthra examines the tail rotor drive shaft of wreckage from the news helicopter that crashed Tuesday March 18, 2014 in Seattle. Federal investigators plan to reconstruct the wreckage of a fatal helicopter accident to determine what caused the aircraft to crash at a busy intersection near Seattle's Space Needle, killing two men on board and seriously burning a third on the ground. (AP Photo/National Transportation Safety Board)
National Transportation Safety Board investigator Josh Cawthra examines the tail rotor drive shaft of wreckage from the news helicopter that crashed Tuesday March 18, 2014 in Seattle. Federal investigators plan to reconstruct the wreckage of a fatal helicopter accident to determine what caused the aircraft to crash at a busy intersection near Seattle's Space Needle, killing two men on board and seriously burning a third on the ground. (AP Photo/National Transportation Safety Board)

SEATTLE (AP) — Investigators trying to learn what caused a fiery helicopter crash near the Space Needle that killed two men on board and burned a third on the ground now have surveillance video footage that shows the aircraft taking off from a helipad, a National Transportation Safety Board official said Thursday.

Seattle police cataloged the video footage captured by nearby businesses, pulled out the relevant bits and supplied copies to NTSB investigators, the NTSB’s Dennis Hogenson said.

A number of nearby businesses, including the Space Needle and a McDonald’s restaurant, had some sort of video, and some of that showed the KOMO-TV news helicopter taking off Tuesday, he said. It plummeted to the street and burst into flames, setting three vehicles ablaze and spewing burning fuel down the street.

In a Seattle Times interview, Hogenson also said officials want to understand how pilot Gary Pfitzner, who was killed in the crash, balanced two jobs — early mornings in the helicopter followed by work as a technical analyst at Boeing.

Earlier this week, Mark Pfitzner said his brother typically had a seven-hour sleep window. Mark Pfitzner subsequently told The Times that his brother never worked fatigued and did not operate unsafely.

Investigators also took samples of the railing around the KOMO rooftop helipad, Hogenson said in a Thursday afternoon interview. The samples will be sent to a materials lab in Washington, D.C. for analysis. Investigators aren’t looking for anything specific, they’re just “seeing some things they don’t understand,” he said.

At a secure hangar in Auburn, south of Seattle, the work of reconstructing the helicopter from its charred wreckage continues.

The agency continues combing through pilot and maintenance and company records associated with the flight, Hogenson said. Investigators are focusing on the helicopter’s engine, the airframe, the pilot and the environment.

A preliminary report could be released by Monday. A final report could take as long as a year.

Witnesses reported hearing unusual noises coming from the aircraft as it lifted off from the helipad on top of Fisher Plaza, KOMO’s headquarters, after refueling. Witnesses also reported seeing the helicopter rotate before it crashed.

The crash killed both Pfitzner, 59, and former KOMO veteran photographer Bill Strothman, 62. Both men were working for Helicopters Inc., which owned the Eurocopter AS350 helicopter. The aircraft was leased jointly by KOMO and KING-TV.

Richard Newman, 38, of Seattle, remained in serious condition at Harborview Medical Center. He was burned when the helicopter crashed on his car. The hospital said Newman will need surgery for burns that covered nearly 20 percent of his body on his back and arms.

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