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Basketball legend Kobe Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were among nine people killed on Sunday when the helicopter they were traveling in crashed in foggy conditions in Calabasas, California, northwest of Los Angeles.
Everyone on board the Sikorsky S-76B — a pilot and eight passengers — perished when the aircraft impacted terrain around 9:45 a.m. local time. According to Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby, the incident and a subsequent fire were reported to 911 at 9:47 a.m., and a variety of units were immediately dispatched to the scene near Las Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street.
“Our firefighters on scene indicated that there was a debris field in steep terrain with a quarter-acre brush fire that was occurring at the time,” Osby stated in an initial press conference on Sunday afternoon.
“In addition to our firefighters hiking into the incident, we had one helicopter flying to the incident with firefighter paramedics on board,” he said, explaining that those paramedics were hoisted down to the incident early into the response and determined there were no survivors.
At the same press conference, L.A. County Sheriff Alex Villanueva declined to identify the victims, pending notifications of next of kin. News outlets including the L.A. Times independently confirmed the deaths of Bryant and his daughter.
In a press release, Orange Coast College confirmed the death of its head baseball coach, John Altobelli, as well as his wife, Keri, and their 13-year-old daughter, Alyssa. Costa Mesa mayor Katrina Foley on Twitter identified another victim as girls’ basketball coach Christina Mauser.
At the time of the crash, Bryant was reportedly en route to his Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, where he was scheduled to coach in a basketball tournament that Gianna, known as “Gigi,” was playing in.
The S-76 was registered as N72EX to Island Express Holding Corp. According to data from Flightradar24.com, it departed John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9:06 a.m. and proceeded northbound.
Air traffic control recordings indicate that the pilot received special visual flight rules (VFR) clearances through the airspace surrounding Burbank and Van Nuys airports, which were reporting instrument meteorological conditions at the time. Special VFR clearances allow aircraft to proceed with reduced visibility minimums provided they remain clear of clouds.
The pilot told a Burbank air traffic controller that he intended to follow the 101 freeway westbound towards Camarillo. He reported VFR conditions to another controller upon exiting Van Nuys airspace. He then requested flight following from SoCal approach, but was told just moments before impact that he was too low-level for flight following at that time.
Witnesses near the scene of the crash reported heavy fog at the time of the accident. One, Jerry Kocharian, told the L.A. Times he saw the helicopter flying unusually low before it vanished into a cloud of fog and there was a boom.
“We do know there was an issue of visibility and a low ceiling,” Villanueva stated in a Sunday evening press conference. “The actual conditions at the time of the impact, that is still yet to be determined and we’ll have that with the NTSB [National Transportation Safety Board] shortly.”
The NTSB on Sunday launched a “Go Team” to California to investigate the accident. Villanueva said the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department (LASD) would be supporting the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in their investigation.
He noted that management of the scene was being complicated by “well wishers and people mourning who have descended on the area, on the residential community, and even the crash site itself. And we have to reiterate, it is off-limits to everybody except the first responders and investigators.”
The LASD has deployed personnel to secure the area during the initial investigation of the scene and the recovery of victims’ bodies.
“Our recovery efforts began today, but . . . given the terrain and the condition of the site, we expect this probably will take at least a couple if not a few days to complete the recovery,” stated Dr. Jonathan Lucas, chief medical examiner for L.A. County.
The FAA has implemented a temporary flight restriction (TFR) up to 5,000 feet within a five-mile radius of the crash site “to provide a safe environment for accident investigation.” The TFR is scheduled to be in effect through the early morning of Friday, Jan. 31.
Manufacturer Sikorsky said it has been in contact with the NTSB and stands ready to provide assistance and support to investigators and its customer.
“Safety is our top priority; if there are any actionable findings from the investigation, we will inform our S-76 customers,” the company stated.
The accident comes on the eve of HAI Heli-Expo 2020, the helicopter industry’s largest trade show, which this year is taking place in Anaheim, close to the John Wayne Airport.
In a statement issued on Sunday afternoon, Heli-Expo organizer HeIicopter Association International expressed its “deepest sympathies,” but added that its official policy is to refrain from commenting on any accident until the authorities complete their investigation.