Seattle helicopter crash has ties to metro-east company

News-DemocratMarch 19, 2014 

The helicopter that crashed Tuesday, bursting into flames just yards from the Space Needle in Seattle and killing two people, has connections to the metro-east.

The news station KOMO-TV leased the chopper from Helicopters Inc., a Cahokia company that operates choppers for more than 50 news organizations across the country, according to the company's website.

A woman who answered the phone Wednesday at Helicopters Inc. said company leaders, including president Stephen Lieber, were in Seattle to assist with the investigation.

Lieber issued this statement Tuesday:

"On behalf of the Helicopters Inc. family, I would like to extend our deepest sympathies to the families of those lost and injured in Seattle today. We mourn their loss and suffering and our thoughts and prayers are with them.

"We will cooperate fully and completely with the National Transportation Safety Board and provide to it whatever information it wants in order to assist it in its work in determining what happened. So that we do not interfere with its work, we will not have any further comment except to say that we are saddened and deeply affected by this tragedy."

More than 500 people have died in at least 1,600 helicopter crashes since 2004, according to January statistics from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Federal investigators said it may take months before they know what caused the chopper to plummet at a busy intersection, setting three vehicles ablaze and spewing burning fuel down the street during the Tuesday morning commute.

KOMO identified the pilot as Gary Pfitzner, of Issaquah, Wash. The other man killed in the crash was Bill Strothman, a former longtime KOMO photographer. Both men were working for Helicopters Inc., which owned the 11-year-old Eurocopter AS350 helicopter.

The company has at least 70 registered helicopters and fixed-wing airplanes, according to Federal Aviation Administration records.

They were flying a backup aircraft while the usual Helicopter Inc. helicopter was being repaired in Cahokia. The helicopter that crashed was built in 2003 and had a valid registration.

Helicopters Inc. boasts on its website that it has "one of the most impressive safety records in the industry."

One of the company's helicopters crashed in 2008 in Houston killing the pilot and camera operator. The NTSB was unable to determine a cause.

Helicopters Inc. has a regional staff of more than 140 full-time pilots and mechanics nationwide, according to the company's website. The company employs 12 local pilots, including six full-time pilots, according to the St. Louis Business Journal.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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