By Jonathan Kaminsky
OLYMPIA, Washington (Reuters) - Investigators began sorting through the burned wreckage of a news helicopter in a Washington state hangar on Wednesday, a day after it crashed in a popular tourist area near the Seattle Space Needle and burst into flames, killing two people on board.
The chopper appeared to have fallen to the street as it attempted to take off from a helipad atop a television news station, and witnesses reported hearing an unusual noise from the aircraft during its departure.
A pilot and photographer who had been on the helicopter were found dead in its wreckage. The occupants of three vehicles that caught fire managed to escape alive, although one motorist who scrambled from his car was severely burned.
Investigators have moved the wreckage to a hangar at an airport in the Seattle suburb of Auburn where they will lay out the pieces of the chopper, which also sent burning helicopter fuel streaming down the street after the crash.
"We lay out the wreckage and match the original geometry and evaluate what's missing or not missing, and what is the problem or not," said Dennis Hogenson, a regional deputy chief for the National Transportation Safety Board.
The city of Seattle also plans to review its rules for helipads in the aftermath of the crash, mayor's spokeswoman Rosalind Brazel said. City officials say they allow medical facilities and news organizations to operate helipads.
"We want to understand what actually happened so we can understand what we can do in the future to prevent this from happening," Mayor Ed Murray told reporters on Tuesday.
A hospital spokeswoman said a motorist who suffered deep burns over 20 percent of his body in the crash was improving and had resumed breathing independently. She added that Richard Newman, 38, will require surgery.
"He's still serious but improving in the intensive care unit," said Harborview Medical Center spokeswoman Susan Gregg, adding that medical staff had removed a breathing tube emergency responders placed in Newman before rushing him to the hospital.
One of the two people killed in the crash of the helicopter was pilot Gary Pfitzner, 59, who worked for Illinois-based Helicopters Inc which operated the helicopter for the KOMO television station.
Also killed was photographer Bill Strothman, 62, who shot video for KOMO but had retired from the company and worked as a freelancer, according to the station.
Police closed down streets around the crash scene on Tuesday as authorities cleared wreckage and conducted their investigation, but cleanup occurred faster than expected and the street where the crash occurred has been re-opened to traffic, according to the Seattle mayor's office.
The Tuesday morning crash, which flung the tail of the aircraft several yards away from its main frame and other debris onto grass at the base of the Space Needle, led officials to close the Seattle Monorail, which runs near the crash scene, and the Space Needle. Both were back to normal operations on Wednesday, the mayor's office said.
(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Wash.; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston, James Dalgleish and David Gregorio)