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SEATTLE — Cell phone video and pictures could provide valuable clues into what caused a news helicopter to crash yards from Seattle’s Space Needle, killing a pilot and photographer, a federal investigator said Wednesday evening.
“We’re going through the witness statements as we speak,” said Dennis Hogenson of the National Transportation Safety Board’s regional office. “There are a lot of statements, a lot of cell phone footage and video footage.”
One witness heard a “whining" sound before the aircraft lifted off.
Police surveillance video will also be reviewed, he said, noting the sheer volume of witness accounts and media from the crash.
In addition, proximity of constructions cranes to the rooftop helipad are being probed. Officials said the pilot had been in contact with a crane operator via radio before the crash, though said it was normal for such communication to occur.
The news chopper whirled above a TV station's helipad during the Tuesday morning rush-hour then crashed and burst into flames when it hit pavement at a busy intersection, setting three vehicles afire. A public health worker on the ground was injured by the fire.
On Wednesday, mourners placed flowers at the crash site to remember former veteran KOMO-TV news photographer Bill Strothman, 62, and pilot Gary Pfitzner, 59.
Mark Pfitzner told KOMO that his brother, Gary, loved to fly and "tried to do his best reporting for people."
News anchor Molly Shen called Strothman "one of the best storytellers to have ever graced the halls of KOMO."
A driver in one of the vehicles set ablaze by the crash, Richard Newman, 38, suffered severe burns to about 20 percent of his body and remained in intensive care at Harborview Medical Center.
His condition, upgraded from critical to serious, was improving Wednesday and he was breathing on his own, Susan Gregg, a hospital spokeswoman, told NBC News.
A second car and a pickup were on fire when firefighters arrived but the drivers managed to escape unharmed, The Seattle Times reported.
Meanwhile, a preliminary inspection of pilot, maintenance and company documents indicate that Pfitzner had about 7,700 hours of helicopter flight time and 900 hours on the model that crashed, Hogenson said. The chopper had been inspected in January and had no maintenance that was outstanding, he said.
A team from the Illinois-based Helicopters Inc., which owned the Eurocopter AS350 chopper and leased it jointly to KOMO and KING TV, is in the state and assisting in the probe, Hogenson told the Associated Press on Wednesday.
It could be months before a cause of the crash is known. A preliminary report on the crash was expected by the end of the week, or Monday. A final report could take more than a year.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray acknowledged in a news conference Tuesday the chopper was flying under helipad regulations that haven’t been updated in 20 years – a period in which city’s downtown has been reshaped by new high rise buildings.