January 26, 2020

Investigation underway to determine cause of California helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, 8 others


Legendary NBA player Kobe Bryant, 41, has died in a helicopter crash in California that killed nine people including his 13-year-old daughter.

CALABASAS, Calif. — Multiple federal agencies will join California officials in trying to determine why a helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven other people slammed into a hillside near Malibu on Sunday, killing everyone aboard.

The low clouds and fog in the area forced the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office to ground their helicopters at the time of the crash, Sheriff Alex Villanueva said. The Los Angeles Police Department took similar precautions with its choppers. It was not immediately clear whether the weather played a role in the accident.

Pastor Bob Bjerkaas was teaching Sunday school at the Church in the Canyons when he heard a helicopter pass overhead.

“You could hear it – thump, thump, thump – and then a loud thud,” he said. 

That is when his wife Kerrie ran in and said she thought there had been a crash. They and about 20 congregants rushed outside of the Presbyterian Church and looked up at the hillside.

The hillside was visible but there was a heavy pall of fog covering the top half. At first, they said they didn’t see much, he said, but then a cloud of gray smoke started to rise.

“It was so dense,” he added. “My guess is he was flying low.”

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Smoke rises from the scene of a helicopter crash on a hillside in Calabasas, California, on Sunday. Nine people were killed, including former NBA superstar Kobe Bryant and one of his daughters.

Initial reports indicated five people were aboard, but Villanueva said Sunday afternoon the flight manifest showed a pilot and eight passengersJohn Altobelli, a community college baseball coach, was among those killed in the crash. He was also with his wife and daughter, Keri and Alyssa, Orange Coast College said in a news release.

A crowd of about 200 people gathered about a mile from the crash site, where smoking ruins were visible on the brushy hillside. Conversation drowned out by the din of news choppers above.

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Rebeca Salcedo, 29, and her cousins were in Calabasas for a birthday breakfast when they saw a helicopter that seemed to be flying low. They soon heard sirens and hoped everyone would be OK, she said.

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They continued brunch but then saw news reports on their phones that Bryant was on board and had died.

“We all just started crying,” she said. “He’s just a great basketball player, you know. We grew up with him.”

Officials identified the helicopter as a Sikorsky S-76. It burst into flames when it hit, and firefighters doused a quarter-acre brush fire. Federal Aviation Administration officials were already arrived on site Sunday and the National Transportation Safety Board had officials en route to investigate.Get the Coronavirus Watch newsletter in your inbox.

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Sikorsky is a Lockheed Martin company. On the Sikorsky website, the S-76 is described as “well-known for its work in VIP transportation and utility work” and for its dependability.

More than 178 customers operate S-76 helicopters in a corporate or VIP role, Sikorksy says, adding that 10 countries “rely on the S-76 for the Head of State mission.” The helicopters have more than 7.4 million hours of safe, successful flight, the website says.

“We extend our sincerest condolences to all those affected by today’s Sikorsky S-76B accident in Calabasas, California,” the company said in a statement. “We have been in contact with the NTSB and stand ready to provide assistance and support to the investigative authorities and our customer.”

There were 233 fatal helicopter accidents between 2009 and 2019, according to the United States Helicopter Safety Team. Personal and private helicopter flights accounted for 26% of fatal accidents in that decade. 

Fire and law enforcement officials surround near the scene of an aircraft crash in Calabasas, California on Jan. 26, 2020.

People near and far were mourning Bryant’s death. He played for the Los Angeles Lakers for 20 years and won five NBA championships.

“I am just in shock,” said Gary Stearns, a Calabasas resident as he walked briskly up Las Virgenes Road to try to get a view of the crash site. “I think about all the terrific things he has done. I couldn’t sit in the house and just watch the news.”

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He said his son used to play at the Mamba Sports Academy facility in Thousand Oaks, one of the premier sports complexes in the area, that Bryant had built.

Curtis Haywood, who had brought a team of eighth-grade girls from Dallas for a tournament there this weekend, also ended up near the crash site. The news came as they were in the gym.

“Everyone in there was in tears,” said Haywood, a former professional basketball player who once signed with the Toronto Raptors. “Everyone went to their court and had a moment of silence.”

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