JOINT BASE PEARL HARBOR-HICKAM (HawaiiNewsNow) - In the moments before a sightseeing helicopter crashed into Pearl Harbor on Thursday morning with five people on board, the pilot indicated he was experiencing trouble and then told air traffic controllers, "I think I'm going down."
In the exchange, the pilot can be heard notifying the air traffic control tower that he was heading toward the south ramp at Ford Island. An air traffic controller asks the pilot to head instead toward the federal prison and hold in place for further direction.
The pilot acknowledges the request. But 22 seconds later, the pilot can be heard issuing a distress call: "Tower. Chopper 8. I think I'm going down."
In the seconds that follow there is one more attempt at communication with air traffic control, but it's inaudible.
Half a minute goes by before the tower tries to make contact with the pilot again: "No need to respond until you can, but when able to -- just give me what your surroundings are so we can get a location." There was no reply from the pilot.
The tour helicopter crashed into waters just off the Arizona Memorial visitors center about 10:30 a.m. Thursday, critically injuring a 15-year-old boy and leaving two others in serious condition.
The air traffic control exchange with the pilot is just one of the many elements National Transportation Safety Board investigators will examine as they review the crash, in addition to a physical inspection of the helicopter. While the pilot knew something was wrong with the chopper shortly before the crash, the distress call doesn't make clear why the helicopter plunged into the water.
On Friday, the chopper was salvaged from the water and transported to a Honolulu airport hangar. It took divers and other crews about an hour to float the downed helicopter using inflatable bags, then transport it to Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam.
The NTSB will now inspect the Bell-206B chopper, operated by Genesis Aviation, as part of an investigation that's expected to take months.
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 Arizona Memorial center. In addition to the pilot, a family of four visiting from Canada was on board.
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.
Witnesses said smoke was coming from the helicopter's tail shortly before it experienced a rapid descent and hit the water.
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."
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