Salvage, investigation of downed sightseeing chopper begins

Web Extra Video: Tour helicopter crash near Arizona Memorial
(Image: Dave Engelman/Twitter)
(Image: Dave Engelman/Twitter)
Victims are treated at the scene (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Victims are treated at the scene (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Emergency crews on the scene (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Emergency crews on the scene (Image: Hawaii News Now)
Hawaii News Now file image of Arizona Memorial
Hawaii News Now file image of Arizona Memorial

JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM (HawaiiNewsNow) - A sightseeing helicopter that crashed into waters just off the Arizona Memorial visitors center has been recovered and is being transported to a Honolulu hangar.

The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the Thursday morning crash, which critically injured a 15-year-old boy and left two others in serious condition.

About 1 p.m. Friday, civilian divers and military personnel attached inflatable bags to the downed helicopter, and floated it to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam. From there, the chopper was to be towed to Honolulu airport.

The chopper had been touring Waimea and was returning to Honolulu when it plunged into the water, to the disbelief of scores of visitors at the center. Five people were on board: the pilot and a family of four visiting from Canada.

The 15-year-old passenger remains in critical condition at Pali Momi Medical Center, a spokeswoman said.

Another family member was taken the Kaiser Moanalua Medical Center in serious condition. The pilot, Ryan Rohner, was also seriously injured and was taken to Tripler Army Medical Center. Two others on the chopper, a 50-year-old man and a 45-year-old woman, were in stable condition at Pali Momi.

Boat trips to the USS Arizona Memorial were canceled Friday, though the visitor center was open.

Rohner is a chief warrant officer 2 in the Army National Guard, and has years of experience flying helicopters commercially and in the military.

He was flying a Bell-206B chopper, operated by Genesis Aviation, when it came down about 10:30 a.m., after experiencing a rapid descent that caught the attention of memorial visitors. Several witnesses also said they saw smoke coming from the helicopter's tail shortly before it went down.

After the crash, good Samaritans jumped into the 8-foot waters off the center's esplanade to help the passengers and pilot to shore. Witnesses described a surreal scene as the chopper dropped in the water just feet from groups of people visiting one of Hawaii's most iconic tourist attractions.

"It was just crazy, unbelievable," said Daniel Rose, who's visiting from Michigan. "I'm just still in awe. It dropped maybe 10 foot off the shore and sank like a rock. I just thank God for the people on the shore who dove in and helped the people get out of the helicopter."

'Thoughts and prayers' to families

Jeff Gebhard owns Genesis Aviation, the company involved in the crash, and told Hawaii News Now on Thursday night that he's been in contact with the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration.

He added, "I just want to say that our thoughts and our prayers go out to the families that are affected by this tragedy today."

Max Burner, of Redwood City, Calif., said the helicopter was "sputtering" at about 500 feet, before it started quickly losing altitude. "As soon as it hit the water, some people popped out," said Burner, who was among those who jumped into the water to help the passengers to shore.

Witness Roy Gano said his initial reaction when seeing the helicopter was that it was flying a bit low.

"It then hovered for a second and then started to descend," he said. "It was not spinning out of control, but it was dropping at a good rate. It narrowly missed the rocky edge and turned to its side. I saw people dive into the water to help."

Bystanders jumped into action

Australian visitor Amber Moncrieff said she didn't see the chopper go down, but heard two loud bangs that "we thought were gunshots."

"We saw people running, which obviously made us scared," she said.

Those who dove into the water said a knife was needed to free one of the passengers from a seatbelt in the chopper.

Video of the chopper crash, shot by a visitor, quickly went viral. It shows the helicopter plunging into the water just off the Contemplation Circle at the visitors center; in the background, witnesses can be heard shouting in disbelief.

"It came right down and pulled up just short of land," said visitor George Tizedes. "Everybody started running over there."

Chris Gardner was among those who jumped into the water. The part-time Keawe Adventures employee was still a bit shaken mid-day Thursday, after washing aviation fuel from his eyes and face.

"I heard the helicopter auto-rotate, which means the engine went out and then people started running and screaming," he said.

By the time he got there, everyone was out of the helicopter except the 15-year-old. Gardner said the boy was stuck in a seatbelt, and so he and a handful of other good Samaritans took turns using a knife to cut away the belt.

"I came up for a breath and then went down, and then we were bringing him up," he said.

Tour company owner: 'It's just tragic'

Gebhard, of Genesis Aviation, said he was in Waikiki picking up another set of passenger when he got a phone call about the crash.

"Obviously it's something no one ever wants to see," he said. "It's just tragic. That's all I can say."

Gebhard said the family of four -- a father, mother, and two sons -- along with his pilot, were on their way back from a tour around Waimea. He said they were on the last part of the tour when the chopper slammed into the water. Gebhard said he believes his pilot was trying to land on land.

"Once you enter the water, then it's a whole new set of problems because egress from the water is much more difficult than on land," Gebhard said.

Gebhard said he tried to visit the victims at the hospital, but was unable to get in. He added that his pilot has years of experience and even flew in the Army.

It's unclear when the chopper wreckage will be salvaged.

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