Site of deadly chopper crash cleared; loved ones identify 3rd victim

Updated: Apr. 30, 2019 at 7:53 PM HST
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KAILUA (HawaiiNewsNow) - As the investigation into what caused a deadly chopper crash Monday gets underway, the wreckage left overnight at the scene has finally been cleared.

Oneawa Street was reopened around 7 p.m. Tuesday. It remained closed until investigators were able to make it to the scene and carefully clean up the rubble.

Meanwhile, officials have identified two of those killed, and the family of the third victim has come forward.

The Medical Examiner’s Office said the Robinson R44 chopper was piloted by Joseph Berridge, 28.

One of the two passengers on board was identified as 28-year-old Ryan McAuliffe, of Chicago. The second passenger, who was visiting from Australia, has been named as Jan Burgess.

In a statement, Burgess’ family said she was affectionately known as ‘Jammie.’ She was a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, sister, aunty and a friend to many.

“Jammie was on holidays with other family members when she was involved in this tragic incident. We are trying to understand and deal with the sudden loss at this time and we request that our extended families privacy is respected during this process,” the family said in a statement.

“We would like to recognise (sic) the brave and selfless efforts of the local community who rushed to this accident scene to assist those that were injured and also the response from the local emergency services,” they added.

Federal and local authorities are teaming up to figure out how the tour helicopter spun out of control and crashed nose-first on Oneawa Street, bursting into flames and killing all three on board.

The city said the three died of “multiple blunt force injuries.”

Oneawa Street was closed for much of Tuesday as the NTSB and others examined the chopper’s wreckage. On Tuesday afternoon, crews began the arduous process of removing the mangled wreckage from the scene.

“We’ll be focusing our investigation on this particular aircraft and as we discover or uncover trends or commonalities, we will give those discoveries their due diligence,” said Fabian Salazar, air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

Salazar, one of four NTSB investigators who arrived in Hawaii on Tuesday morning, said they’ll be looking at several factors, including the wreckage itself, the pilot and environmental factors.

The crash on Oneawa Street about 9 a.m. produced a shocking scene for drivers and nearby residents, who rushed to the site in the slim hope that someone on board had survived.

“A Marine officer in a flight suit came running up. He was the first there and started trying to unbuckle the seat belt,” said Evan Strouse. “Me and him started dragging him out.”

Strouse said he and the Marine managed to pull one from the burning aircraft.

“I want to think that the pilot tried to hit the road because it’s crazy that this helicopter landed in the road and avoided all the other houses around it,” Strouse said.

Bystanders aimed their garden hoses at the fire to try to put out the blaze.

“Neighbors were doing a heroic effort trying to put out the fire and also trying to get the patients away from the burning aircraft,” said Shayne Enright, spokeswoman for the city Emergency Services Department. She confirmed all three victims were pronounced dead at the scene.

Witness Tehani Alo said she saw the helicopter spinning out of control before it came crashing down.

“It sounded like hell landing,” she said.

Another resident described the crash this way: “Horrible.”

The chopper ― a four-seat Robinson R44 aircraft ― was owned by tour company Novictor Helicopters. In a statement, the company said it’s working closely with the FAA and NTSB on the investigation.

“This accident is heartbreaking for everyone, especially the families and friends of the passengers and pilot, who was part of our Novictor family. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all of them,” the company said. “The safety and welfare of our personnel and passengers are our top priority.”

Authorities are responding to a helicopter crash in Kailua (Image: Adrian M. Kozuki)
Authorities are responding to a helicopter crash in Kailua (Image: Adrian M. Kozuki)

Matt Clarke, an aviation attorney in Portland who specializes in investigating helicopter crashes, says it's hard to determine now exactly what went wrong in the air, but says the Robinson R44 helicopter has a history of known issues.

“Things like loss of tail rotor effectiveness, which could sort of match up with some of the witnesses who talk about the helicopter spinning out of control,” said Clarke. “The main rotor actually will actually impact the rotor mast on the helicopter itself, which could cause the rotor to break apart and the helicopter to break apart. They have an issue with fires on hard impacts or crashes that might otherwise be survivable.”

Witness Adrian Kozuki, who lives nearby, said he was in his backyard when the crash happened.

“I heard the helicopter in the air and all of a sudden I heard a pop, like a blast kind of thing,” he said. Then, within 15 seconds, he said he could see smoke coming out.

The crash sent debris onto nearby homes, properties and cars across at least eight separate properties.

At least one vehicle was significantly damaged when a fuel tank landed on its hood. One homeowner retrieved a cell phone from a rooftop. Another found a shoe in their backyard.

Mike Cunningham was driving when he saw the chopper crash about 20 feet in front of him.

He said the helicopter came down “very hard, nose first.”

“I saw the wires shaking, and right after that the wires broke and a helicopter came crashing through the trees,” Cunningham said, adding that as soon as it hit the ground, it was already on fire.

“I don’t see how anybody could’ve walked away from it,” Cunningham said. “It was in flames immediately. And you couldn’t get close to it.”

Lisa Dow lives about two blocks from where the chopper came down, and said she heard the helicopter in the air and then the sound of the crash.

[Read more: In wake of deadly crash, lawmaker calls on authorities to ground tour helicopters]

She said the chopper “pretty much disintegrated” on impact.

“It’s horrible,” she said. “The blessing is that nobody on the ground got hit.”

Added witness Vanessa Solomon: “The saddest part was knowing that there were people falling out of the sky. It was hard to see that."

Police Lt. Wayne Wong said it’s remarkable that no one on the ground was injured when the helicopter came down. “Oneawa is a busy street, especially in the morning hours,” he said.

“People going to work. People going to school. It could have impacted a bigger part of the community.”

Melissa Solomon was driving down Oneawa Street with her daughter when the helicopter came down about 70 feet ahead of their car.

She says her instinct was to get her daughter away from danger and to call 911 as nearby residents rushed to the scene to see what happened ―and to try to help.

“I said, ‘oh my God, I don’t know what to do,’” she said.

The noise of the crash shook Ikona Kaapana’s house.

“When it was falling, it wasn’t on fire,” he said. “It was all black and there was no propellers and it was on it’s side when it was falling. We heard it land and it just went up in smoke."

Novictor was involved in a separate helicopter crash in October.

In that incident, a Robinson R-44 crashed just off the Kaneohe sand bar after the pilot reportedly had a medical emergency and passed out. A couple visiting from Chicago was seriously injured in the crash.

The chopper crash is also the second this month.

Earlier in April, a helicopter went down near Sacred Falls after an apparent engine failure.

The Paradise Helicopters aircraft was contracted by the state Land Department, and crashed into trees before hitting the ground.

In that incident, all four people on board the helicopter refused transport to the hospital.

This story will be updated.

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