PHOENIX – Television viewers were watching a typical police chase: A work truck, tires blown out by police, rolling slowly on its rims, banging into parked cars, swerving into the sidewalk, slamming into barricades.
Rick Gotchie, working in a nearby building, was watching the beginning of a tragedy he could do nothing to stop.
News helicopters covering the scene live early Friday afternoon over central Phoenix as the motorist drove erratically, then got out of the truck and carjacked another vehicle. Two of them began circling closer, Gotchie noticed, and one appeared to get too close to the other.
“I kept saying go lower, go lower, but he didn’t,” said Gotchie, a Phoenix air conditioning contractor.
In one of the helicopters, KNXV reporter-pilot Craig Smith saw the driver get out of the first truck.
“This may be the end of this thing,” he said. “OK, now it’s a foot chase.”
Police were trying to stop the motorist from leaving in the second vehicle when Smith’s helicopter and another taping for station KTVK collided over Steele Indian School Park.
“Oh geez!” was all viewers could hear Smith say as his broadcast broke up in a jumble of spinning, broken images. KNXV cut back to the confused studio, then to regular programming – a soap opera – before announcing the helicopter had crashed.
“I was running over there as they were falling and they were both on fire and exploding,” Gotchie said. “No one got out.”
All four people on board the two aircraft were killed, police and the stations reported: Smith and photographer Rick Krolak for KNXV; and KTVK pilot Scott Bowerbank and photographer Jim Cox.
The choppers came down on the lawn in front of a boarded-up church at the park, site of an old Indian school. Firefighters swarmed to the area as thick black smoke rose from the scene.
Witness Mary Lewis said she was stuck in traffic with her four grandsons and was watching the helicopters, turned to talk to the children, and then saw a fireball in the air when she looked again.
“I looked up and I see this ‘boom’ and I see one of the helicopters coming down, and I said, ‘Oh my God,”‘ Lewis said.
She said she went to the crash site to help.
“It’s nothing there,” Lewis said. “Just burned-up stuff.”
Another witness at the scene said she was at a barbecue withe her family at the park when she looked up and saw one helicopter “undercut” the other one, causing both to spin out of control.
TV viewers did not actually witness the accident because cameras aboard both aircraft were pointed at the ground.
Phoenix police Chief Jack Harris suggested to reporters at the scene that the subject of the chase could be charged in connection with the helicopter crash.
“I believe you will want to talk to investigators but I think he will be held responsible for any of the deaths from this tragedy,” Harris said. He didn’t elaborate.
The pursuit began when the motorist fled a traffic stop. He ultimately was later taken into custody by a SWAT team after barricading himself inside a house, said Phoenix police spokesman Sgt. Joel Tranter.
Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association in Washington, said the group does not track fatalities among helicopter news pilots, but she could not recall another example of two news choppers colliding while covering a story.
“These pilots, they are very professional. They combine the skills of pilots and skills as journalists,” she said.
“Our job is to cover the news, in this case, a chase pursuit,” said KTVK helicopter news reporter and photographer Hilton Metzner. But he said helicopter pilots must also deal with news producers in an earpiece and pay attention to other aircraft.
“It’s like a symphony,” he said. “But there’s also an element of danger. It can be overwhelming at times. (I) can’t believe this. We’ll try to continue doing what we do, but this is surreal right now.”
Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said the pilots of the five news helicopters and one police chopper over the chase were not talking to air traffic controllers at the time, which is normal.
“Typically air traffic controllers clear helicopters into an area where they can cover a chase like this,” Gregor said. “Once they are in the area, the pilots themselves are responsible for keeping themselves separated from other aircraft.”
Pilots generally use a dedicated radio frequency to talk to each other and maintain their positions, Gregor said.
“There is a high degree of coordination,” Gregor said. “To fly for a TV station you have to have a commercial rating, which means more (flight hours), more training.”
All procedures were properly followed in terms of helicopters being allowed in the area to follow the chase, Gregor said. FAA officials have listened to tapes of communications with air traffic controllers, which do not have any indication the news crews knew they were about to crash, he said. Tapes of communications between the helicopters have not been reviewed, Gregor said, adding he does not know if that channel would be monitored by the FAA.
“Once the helicopters are in that area, they are responsible for keeping themselves safely separated from the other helicopters, and they communicate on a special helicopter frequency,” Gregor said. “All of the procedures were properly followed here. They weren’t talking to air traffic control at the time of the accident. They were communicating on their own.”
Keith McCutchen, a past president of the National Broadcast Pilots Association and a news pilot for 11 years in Indianapolis, said pilot awareness is vital while on the scene of a story because of the many distractions that could spell trouble.
“You are watching the scene. You have to bring your attention inside to look at the monitors to see what the audience is seeing so you can converse. But you’re also having to direct your attention to the other aircraft flying around you.
“You have to have your head on a swivel in those kinds of situations,” he said.
The FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board will both investigate the crash. As yet, there is no indication as to what went wrong.
The Associated Press and the East Valley Tribune in Mesa, Ariz., contributed to this report.