It was the worst of days for KOMO-TV employees who witnessed the immediate aftermath of a helicopter crash that killed two contract employees, including one who had been a longtime staff photographer, and seriously injured a third man on the ground.
Station employees were working at their desks at Fisher Plaza in Seattle, Washington state, about 7.40am on Tuesday when they heard tree branches snapping, then car horns sounding, said longtime anchor Dan Lewis.
They rushed to their office windows and watched in horror as a helicopter carrying two of their colleagues burned after crashing seconds before. Reporter Kelly Koopmans reported on air that explosions from the helicopter continued 20 minutes after the crash.
Corwin Haeck, a KOMO news radio reporter, said he heard the crash from the KOMO newsroom, grabbed his microphone and recorder, and rushed down to the street.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing in front of my eyes. Our own news chopper in a ball of fire.”
A short time later, Haeck saw a man emerge from one of the damaged vehicles and collapse in the street.
That man, Richard Newman, 38, of Seattle, is being treated for severe burns. The victims who died in the helicopter have been identified as Bill Strothman, 62, who had been a longtime station photographer before working as a contractor, and contract pilot Gary Pfitzner, 59.
“This is something that happened to our family,” Haeck said, adding that KOMO staffers were struggling to “put our emotions on hold long enough to get and report the story”.
Haeck, who has worked at KOMO for 10 years but did not know the victims, said the newsroom was distraught.
Despite the emotions of the morning, Haeck said the broadcast journalists jumped into action immediately after seeing the crash.
“Every day we come to work and understand something tragic could happen, and it’s our job to report it,” he said. “This is no different.”
Lewis said he was about to board a plane for Washington DC where he had a date to interview President Barack Obama. He rushed back to the KOMO newsroom, where he and co-anchor Eric Johnson continued to report live on the tragedy.
Lewis’ tone veered from straight-on commentary, as he discussed the likely progress of an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, to a voice that threatened to break as he reported the death of his colleagues.
Television journalists witness tragedies every day, Lewis said, but this one struck at the heart of the KOMO “family”. That emotional connection was visible on the scene, as the station’s reporters broke into tears between their live reports.
For now, KOMO employees are trying to focus on any positives they can find in this tragedy that hit so close to home.
Lewis pointed out that the crash could have been much worse: “If this had been a summer day when the tourists were out, it would have magnified the tragedy …”
And Johnson fondly remembered the pilot he saw every day. “When it was a nice day he would say, ‘It’s a beautiful day. I have the best job in the world when it’s a beautiful day.’ “