Seattle news helicopter crashes near Space Needle

SEATTLE (AP/WJLA) - Two people were killed when a news helicopter for KOMO-TV crashed outside its station near the Seattle Space Needle, sending clouds of black smoke over the city during the Tuesday morning rush hour.

They have since been identified as pilot Gary Pfitzner of Issaquah and Bill Strothman, a former longtime KOMO photographer. Both men were working for Cahokia, Ill.-based Helicopters Inc., the leasing company that operates the Eurocopter AS350 helicopter.

Wreckage of news chopper, 2 cars still exploding right now @komonews

— Kelly Koopmans (@KellyKOMO4) March 18, 2014

The Seattle Fire Department said in addition to the fatalities, a 38-year-old man who managed to free himself from a car at the accident scene was taken to Harborview Medical Center in critical condition after being critically burned.

"He was just frantic. He was waving his arms. He was screaming," describes witness Carmen Romero.

It was a horrifying scene as the helicopter crashed moments after lifting off from the station’s helipad and burst into flames on the street below.

Three vehicles on the street caught fire, but crews quickly put out the flames in a cloud of thick black smoke while a white tent was erected over the charred remnants of the chopper.

The NTSB is now leading the investigation. The chopper that crashed was reportedly being used as a backup, as the main helicopter is undergoing repairs in Illinois.

The station says the copter was apparently lifting off from its rooftop when it possibly hit the side of the building and went down, hitting several vehicles on Broad Street.

On Tuesday night, it is being reported that 38-year old Richard Newman is in an intensive care unit, suffering from burns covering over 20-percent of his body.

"It's not really an inherently dangerous job, but aviation's very unforgiving," says pilot Steve Miller. He and photographer Brad Freitas make up one of two crews that shoot helicopter video for ABC7.

"He was in probably the worst situation you could be in in a helicopter -- low and slow, coming off of a raised heliport; that's a bad situation," explains Miller.

This is not the first TV chopper accident. In 2004, three people survived a crash on a Brooklyn rooftop, and in 2007, four people died when two helicopters collided while covering a police chase in Phoenix.

"You don't dwell on what could happen," says Freitas. "You more take every step that you can to prevent it from happening. I just keep an eye out for where I can go should anything happen."

Freitas says being able to get to a scene fast helps serve the public:

"People want the story, they want the news, they want what's happening out there."

And despite today's tragedy, Freitas will keep doing it:

"It's something that you kind of accept as part of the job, but it's not going to stop me from doing what I love, which is covering the news."