Image: A pair of Blue Hawaiian tour helicopters sit grounded at Kahului Airport in Maui, Hawaii
Matt Thayer  /  The Maui News via AP
A pair of Blue Hawaiian tour helicopters sit grounded on a tarmac at Kahului Airport in Maui, Hawaii, Thursday afternoon, after a helicopter from the company crashed taking four tourists on an excursion over the neighboring island of Molokai.
msnbc.com news services
updated 11/11/2011 4:12:33 PM ET 2011-11-11T21:12:33

A National Transportation Board Safety investigator was due to arrive in Hawaii on Friday to begin probing why a tour helicopter slammed into a ridge on Molokai island, killing the pilot and four tourists on board.

The investigation will begin immediately, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer. A preliminary report typically would come within a week or two, but it could be months before the probable cause of the crash is determined.

The Blue Hawaiian Helicopters flight was on a 45-minute aerial tour of west Maui and Molokai when it crashed around midday Thursday.

Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration's Pacific Division, told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that after the crash the Eurocopter EC-130 was "engulfed in flames."

Richard Stevens, principal of Kilohana Elementary School, said at the time of the crash "a lot of us heard what we thought was thunder," according to the paper. Ualapue resident Wren Wescoatt added there were heavy rain squalls at the time, saying he had heard a loud "whoop" sound then saw flames from the crash site.

'Extremely grieved'
Firefighters recovered four bodies, and the fifth was located under the wreckage. The Maui Visitors Bureau was helping families of the victims.

Maui County officials said the passengers were from Pennsylvania and Ontario, Canada. Two were newlyweds.

The Maui News said officials identified the pilot as Nathan Cline, 30, of Kihei.

Blue Hawaiian Helicopters owner David Chevalier said the passengers were taking a 45-minute tour that departed from Kahului, on Maui. He declined to release the pilot's name.

"We're extremely grieved for our pilot as well as the passengers," Chevalier said. "Something like this can't be more devastating to us."

Authorities have not yet released the identities of the passengers. Initial indications were that none was involved with the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting being held in Honolulu this week.

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Maui mayor Alan Arakawa knew the pilot on a personally, according to a report on news website Hawaii News Now.

"He's taken us around when we had the tsunami problems," the mayor said.

"We went around and we actually got to see all of the details, taking us real close. (He was) very experienced. We're just really sad that this has happened," he added.

"We truly want to express our sorrow to all of those whose families are involved," Arakawa told the website. "Blue Hawaiian, this is only the second accident they've had in the history of the company, so generally a very, very safe company."

Chevalier said the helicopter was less than a year old and was being leased from Nevada Helicopter Leasing LLC.

Deadly crashes
Molokai is a mostly rural island of about 7,000 people between Maui and Oahu.

Tour companies advertise trips to Molokai to see the island's sea cliffs and Hawaii's tallest waterfall. The remote Kalaupapa peninsula on Molokai is where Hawaii exiled leprosy patients between 1866 and 1969.

A Blue Hawaiian helicopter was involved in a July 2000 crash that killed seven people on Maui. A National Transportation Safety Board report said that the pilot was responsible, failing to maintain enough altitude over the terrain amid low-lying clouds.

Blue Hawaiian conducts 160,000 tours each year on all of the Hawaiian islands, Chevalier said.

Hawaii has seen several other helicopter crashes in the last decade.

In March 2007, four people died when a Heli-USA Airways helicopter crashed at Princeville Airport on Kauai.

Three passengers drowned in 2005 after a helicopter crashed into the ocean off the coast of Kauai. In 2004, five people were killed when a helicopter crashed into a mountain on Kauai.

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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