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NTSB issues preliminary report in Phoenix collision

There was no visible sign of trouble involving two news helicopters before they collided, downing both aircraft and killing all four people aboard, federal investigators said Friday.

The National Transportation Safety Board issued a preliminary report on the July 27 accident, which occurred while KTVK-TV and KNXV-TV news crews were covering a police pursuit in central Phoenix.

The preliminary report, which made no conclusions about the cause of the accident, said witnesses on the glision occurred.”

Said the report: “There were no reports of erratic movements prior to the collision and no unusual sounds or smoke.”

There were five news helicopters covering the pursuit, and a police chopper was also over the chase, but at a lower altitude.

The preliminary report said another pilot told the NTSB the two news helicopters were “positioned a reasonable distance apart” when he first noticed them.

The police pilot then broadcast that the motorist being chased was going to carjack another truck, and he glanced away for a moment, according to the report.

When the pilot who was interviewed looked back, he told the NTSB, the news helicopters were closer together and “shortly thereafter, they impacted.” It is unclear from the preliminary report if that pilot was the police pilot or one of the news chopper aviators.

The helicopters exploded when they plunged into Steele Indian School Park, one of the few open spots in the immediate area, ending up about 75 feet apart.

The accident sent a plume of black smoke over central Phoenix and threw debris up to a half-mile away, but no injuries to people on the ground were reported.

News media, including KNXV and The Arizona Republic, have reported that the crash occurred moments after the KNVX (Channel 15) pilot was heard asking his photographer about the location of the KTVK (Channel 3) helicopter and then telling the KTVK pilot that the KNXV helicopter was “right over you.”

An NTSB official said July 28 that some witnesses told investigators that neither helicopter appeared to be in distress before they collided and that the Channel 3 helicopter appeared to be stationary when the Channel 15 helicopter moved toward it, either from below or about the same altitude.

The NTSB preliminary report did not mention any radio transmissions by the news helicopters’ pilots, but it cited a “see and avoid” flight advisory that states pilots have a “responsibility for constantly maintaining a vigilant lookout regardless of the type of aircraft being flown.”

TV viewers did not witness the accident because cameras aboard both aircraft were pointed at the ground, but they saw video from one of the helicopters break up and begin to spin before the station abruptly switched to the studio.

Those killed were KNXV pilot Craig Smith, 47, and photographer Rick Krolak, 55, and KTVK pilot Scott Bowerbank, 42, and photographer Jim Cox, 37.

A joint memorial was held Tuesday for Bowerbank and Cox. Smith’s funeral was held Thursday, and a service is scheduled Saturday for Krolak.

A man accused of leading police on the car chase the news helicopters were covering has been charged with unlawful flight, assaulting a police officer and auto theft. He was taken into custody several hours after the crash by a SWAT team after barricading himself inside a house.

Police had said July 27 that Christopher Jermaine Jones, 23, could be held responsible for the helicopter collision, but Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said Tuesday that he won’t decide immediately if charges against him in the deaths of the four newsmen will be filed.

The loss of the well-known pilots and their photographers prompted an outpouring of public sympathy. Candles, flowers, handwritten notes and children’s drawing were placed at a memorial to the park’s entrance, and piles of bouquets were delivered to the television stations.

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