by Shaun Knittel -
SGN Associate Editor
Richard Newman, 38, was driving along Broad Street in Seattle Tuesday morning when a KOMO news helicopter crashed onto his car, engulfing his red car in flames and killing chopper pilot Gary Pfitzner and photographer Bill Strothman. The King County Medical Examiner's office announced Wednesday that Pfitzner, 59, died of blunt force trauma to the head, torso and extremities, and Strothman, 62, died of blunt force injuries to the head, neck, torso and extremities.
The crash was ruled an accident.
Newman, an openly Gay man and member of the Emerald City Softball Association (ECSA), nearly died as well. He spent an unbearable 90 seconds trapped inside his burning car before he was able to get out on his own. As he ran from the car, according to witnesses, Newman was still on fire. A Fisher Plaza security guard ran to Newman's aid.
Newman suffered second- and third-degree burns on his back and arms and he's also being treated for a head wound and a broken rib. The KOMO helicopter came crashing down nearly right on top of him. Some witnesses say it is a miracle he survived.
Two other drivers whose vehicles burned escaped uninjured. One of those drivers, Kallie Meno, was near Newman when the chopper came down. She was the driver of the white SUV who was able to get away uninjured.
Meno was stopped at a red light when she saw the helicopter take off and then dive right over her.
'When you see it go side to side, it looked like something out of a bad movie,' she told KING 5. 'Just looked through my rearview mirror and saw the fire and heard all of the crunching and the noises of it hitting.'
Meno says she ran from her vehicle, leaving it for fear she would be killed. When she saw her chance, she returned to the vehicle and drove it to a nearby parking lot, parked, and then told investigators what she saw.
She says that what happened on Tuesday morning near the Space Needle has forever changed the route she'll take to get to work and that it hasn't sunk in yet, what it means to survive.
'It really is life-altering and makes you think about everything,' she said. 'It's a great reminder of how precious life is.'
Life is precious, and it is something that Newman, along with his husband and family, are reminded of even now as he remains in serious condition in the intensive care unit at Harborview. Initially Newman was listed in critical condition, but was upgraded to serious condition by Tuesday afternoon. Harborview spokeswoman Susan Gregg reports that Newman will need surgery for his burns.
Those concerned about Newman's recovery breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday when it was announced that he was taken off a machine and was breathing on his own. Still, it is important to note that his recovery is far from over. Lucky for Newman, Harborview is well-equipped to treat him.
'The good news is he's got less of his body burned, he's young, he's in a good place - he's at a Level 1 burn and trauma center for four states that does this and has the volume to do this and has really good outcomes,' said Gregg.
Newman's family nembers from Bellingham as well as his husband are at the hospital.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said during a Wednesday afternoon press conference that investigators will look at all possible scenarios in determining what caused the incident.
Authorities aren't publicly ruling out anything and they have witness statements, video footage, maintenance records and communications to aid them in their search for what went wrong.
'There are a number of scenarios and we're looking into all of those,' said Dennis Hogenson of the NTSB. 'There are too many variables.'
NTSB will issue a preliminary report by the end of this week or early next week indicating what investigators know at that point, said officials. A definitive cause of the crash isn't likely to be determined at that time; however, the final report won't come out for up to a year.
The helicopter wreckage was moved to a secure hangar in Auburn, where investigators will deconstruct every part of it, Hogenson said. They need to inventory which parts are there, and which are missing, he said.
Witnesses reported hearing unusual noises coming from the aircraft as it lifted off from the helipad on top of Fisher Plaza, KOMO's headquarters, after refueling on Tuesday morning. Witnesses also reported seeing the helicopter rotate before it crashed.
'It pitched sideways. It was off balance, and you could tell right away something wasn't right,' said Bo Bain, an excavation foreman at a nearby construction project who watched the aircraft take off. 'The helicopter was struggling to stay up. It spun around, hit the top of the tree and landed on the street.'
Seconds later, 'It was just a fireball. The whole thing burst into flames,' he said.
Firefighters who arrived at the scene before 8 a.m. found a 'huge black cloud of smoke' and two cars and a pickup truck engulfed in flames, Seattle Fire Department spokesman Kyle Moore said.
Fuel running down the street also was on fire, and crews worked to stop it before it entered the sewer, Moore said.
NTSB investigators are looking into the possibility the main rotor of the helicopter somehow hit the tail.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray noted the normally bustling Seattle Center was relatively quiet at the time of the incident. Had it been a busier day, 'this would have been a much larger tragedy,' he said.
In response to the crash, the city will review its policies about permitting helicopter pads, Murray said.
Current rules in Seattle allow helipads to be used downtown and in some commercial zones and industrial areas. They can be used only for public service, emergency medical care and for news agencies, mayor's office spokesman Jeff Reading said.
The last helicopter crash in Seattle was in November 1999, when a KIRO-TV news helicopter collided in midair with another helicopter over Lake Union. No one died, there were only minor injuries, after both pilots landed safely at nearby helipads, according to an NTSB report.
Other major cities have experienced helicopter crashes as TV stations rush to cover the news from above. Two news helicopters collided in midair in Phoenix in 2007 as the aircraft covered a police chase, sending fiery wreckage plummeting onto a park. Four people in the helicopters were killed.
The crash prompted changes at the stations in how they operated their helicopter crews.
In Seattle, colleagues and family members remembered the two men who were killed in the crash Tuesday morning. KOMO is a block from the Space Needle. Workers at the station rushed to the window when they heard the crash and that's when they realized their reporters were now in the position of covering their colleagues' deaths.
One of them, Denise Whitaker, said on the street shortly after the crash: 'It is definitely a tragic scene down here. It is a difficult time for all of us this morning.'
Dan Lewis described Strothman as someone 'who really knew how his pictures could tell a million words.'
'He was just a true gentleman,' Lewis said on the air. 'We're going to miss you guys. And thanks so much for all that you gave to us.'
Strothman's son, Dan Strothman, is also a KOMO video journalist.
The Strothman family said in a statement that the former KOMO photographer was a 'great man, a kind soul, a devoted husband, a loving father and brother.'
Richard Newman's family also released a statement to thank the community for an outpouring of support on Wednesday.
'We want to thank everyone for their enormous support, encouragement, and prayers, including community members, police, firefighters, and anyone else who was involved,' said the family in a statement.
The family particularly thanked KOMO TV security guard Brian Post, who is credited with coming to Newman's aid while he fled his vehicle, still on fire.
'I used my hand at first and then his jacket to get the flames out,' Post, a former police officer, told KOMO TV.
'We want to send a special thank you to Brian Post, a KOMO TV security guard, to whom we are very grateful,' said Newman's family in the statement. 'Our hearts go out to the friends and families who have lost loved ones in this horrible tragedy.'
Newman works primarily as a clinical trials project manager at Genelex in Seattle, but also works as a disease intervention specialist with the King County Public Health Department.
King County Executive Dow Constantine released a statement about Newman, saying, 'As a part-time employee at Public Health, Richard is a true public servant, helping us combat disease by doing HIV testing in our community. Richard is highly regarded and deeply valued by his teammates and managers in our HIV/STD program. I send my heartfelt wishes to Richard and his loved ones on his road to recovery.'
Public Health - Seattle & King County released the following statement: 'We were stunned to learn of the injuries sustained by our colleague Richard Newman from today's terrible helicopter crash. In his role with Public Health, Richard does exceptional work in helping to reduce the impact of HIV and STDs in our community. We're very proud to have him on our team. We send our thoughts and heartfelt wishes to Richard, his family and loved ones on his road to recovery, as well as our deepest condolences to the families of the others our community lost today, Bill Strothman and Gary Pfitzner.'
Newman has been described as 'an avid softball player' with the Emerald City Softball Association.
ECSA officials have wished Newman a speedy recovery. 'Our thoughts are with Richard Newman of the Seattle Phoenix, who is at Harborview Medical Center recovering from injuries sustained in today's helicopter crash outside Seattle Center,' ESCA Open Division posted on their Facebook wall.
Mourners on Wednesday left flowers at the crash site to remember former KOMO veteran photographer Bill Strothman and pilot Gary Pfitzner.
The funeral for the pilot killed in Tuesday's news helicopter crash in Seattle will be Saturday in Issaquah.
KOMO says the funeral for Pfitzner will be at noon Saturday at St. Joseph's Catholic Church. The service is open to the public.
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