By James Stevenson The Canadian Press
By James Stevenson The Canadian Press
May 14, 2008, Cranbrook, B.C. - A pedestrian crushed Tuesday under the exploding fireball of a crashed helicopter had little warning of the tragedy, witnesses said.
The man was walking along a residential street in the quiet community of Cranbrook, B.C., when the chopper dropped out of the sky and onto the pavement, killing three people on board the aircraft and the pedestrian below.
The chopper exploded into a fireball as it hit the street, leaving a trail of flames and wreckage as it skidded for several metres along the street.
"There was a pedestrian walking on the street across from me and he was just about at the back alley and I don't think he even knew what hit him,'' Elmer Bautz, who saw the crash from his front window, told The Canadian Press in a telephone interview.
"It actually touched the pedestrian and I think that's when it decapitated (him).''
The Transportation Safety Board confirmed the four deaths _ the pilot and two passengers in the helicopter and the pedestrian _ and said the aircraft was a Bell 206 JetRanger hired by BC Hydro.
RCMP Cpl. Chris Faulkner said while the situation is awful, it could have been much, much worse.
The residential street where the aircraft went down is lined with houses and apartment buildings. There are two elementary schools within blocks of the crash site
"Man, oh man. It's tragic, but very lucky there weren't more deaths in this situation,'' Faulkner said.
Bautz said he had seen the small blue-and-white helicopter flying above his neighbourhood before, and it was flying low above the houses for several minutes Tuesday without any problems.
But he said something seemed amiss just seconds before the helicopter came crashing down.
"My friend and I, we could tell there was something wrong because he was kind of fluttering and sputtering and I kind of thought there was trouble but it happened so bloody quick,'' Bautz said.
"He came down at about a 45-degree angle, and he came down pretty fast and it exploded into a fireball. . . . It was tremendously loud.''
Bautz said several nearby residents tried pulling people from the wreckage but to no avail.
One of those people was Rick Schram, who also saw the helicopter crash down.
"When the helicopter landed on the pedestrian, it looked like he saw it at the last second but couldn't get out of the way,'' Schram told the Cranbrook Daily Townsman.
Four or five people who rushed to the scene took off their shirts and jackets and tried to put out the fire on the pedestrian's body, but they were unable to save the unidentified man.
Schram said before the crash, the helicopter was flying low, as if it "was looking for a place to land.''
"We thought they were looking for somebody in the area because they were so low,'' Spring said. "With the colour of the helicopter we thought it was RCMP.''
He added: "It's something you can't believe you're seeing."
The helicopter was operated by Bighorn Helicopters Inc., based in Cranbrook.
A spokesman for the company said he couldn't comment on the crash while the Transportation Safety Board investigates.
"The management and staff at Bighorn Helicopters would like to offer their deepest sympathies and condolences to those involved in this tragic accident,'' said Murray Whyte.
"Bighorn Helicopters will be assisting the (Transportation Safety Board) in every way possible.''
The RCMP said the helicopter was being flown by one of the company's senior pilots at the time.
No names were released.
Area resident Richard Fairchild said the helicopter was so low as it was flying around that he couldn't hear the other end of a phone call as it buzzed by.
He watched as the aircraft made its final pass, flying over some trees and then suddenly dropping to the ground.
"It looked like he was trying to land or something, but there was no control,'' he said.
Fairchild said the fire was out by mid-afternoon, and burnt helicopter parts were scattered across the road.
Mary Fiorentino lives about two blocks from the crash site in Cranbrook, a small city of more than 18,000 people in southeastern B.C.
"There's not much to see. It burnt. There was a fire,'' she said. "It was big rubble. It was just demolished, just pieces on the ground. But they've got it all covered with a tarp now.''
Fiorentino said she walked down to the crash site to where a large crowd gathered. The streets around the scene were blocked off.
"They've got another tarp there that they say a body's under,'' she said.
The helicopter was lying on the road, but close to a lawn.
"The houses are right there. Fortunately, it didn't hit any homes or cars parked on the street,'' Fiorentino said.
"The coroner was there and he looked under (the tarp).''
Three Transportation Safety Board investigators were dispatched to Cranbrook to look into the crash, said board spokesman Bill Yearwood.
"Of course they will be trying to see first if there was any catastrophic failure in the aircraft that we might need to look and see if there's other similar aircraft at risk,'' said Yearwood.
"That's their first goal. The wreckage will be examined on site and then transported somewhere where we can have a closer look at it.''
BC Hydro CEO Bob Elton said the two employees in the chopper were on a routine line patrol.
In a statement, BC Hydro said that everyone at the company felt "overwhelming grief'' at the news.
"This loss will be felt by all of us at BC Hydro and in the communities where they lived and served,'' Elton said.
"I am joined by Hydro employees across the province in expressing my deepest and most sincere condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of the victims of this accident.''
Bighorn Helicopters has been involved in two board investigations over the past 10 years _ one in Alberta and another near Cranbrook. Neither incident involved fatalities.
In March 2002, a Bighorn Eurocopter AS350-D working for the Alberta government near Blairmore, Alta., to support weather-station maintenance and snow pack analysis was caught in a wind gust in mountainous terrain.
The chopper, with three people aboard, crashed into some trees and rolled on its side as the pilot tried to abort the landing at a weather station. The pilot and front-seat passenger were seriously hurt but the rear passenger received only minor injuries.
A Transportation Safety Board investigation found the pilot tried to land in wind conditions that most likely exceeded the helicopter's performance limits and could not control the aircraft when it was hit by strong downdrafts or wind shear.
In January 1998, another Bighorn Eurocopter AS350 with a pilot and two passengers taking off from a landing pad near Cranbrook experienced a sudden loss of rotor speed about 25 metres above the ground and began to descend.
The pilot made a forced landing on a snowy slope and the chopper rolled on its side. All three occupants escaped injury and safety board investigators could find no evidence that snow or ice blocked the engine's air intake or any other mechanical defect that would cause the loss of rotor speed.
Yearwood said the board is aware of the previous incidents involving Bighorn aircraft.
The Bell JetRanger involved in Tuesday's crash is a model that's been manufactured since the early 1960s, a longtime workhorse in the helicopter business. It can carry a pilot and up to four passengers.
(With files from James Keller in Vancouver)