Searchers Thursday made a grisly discovery when they found two bodies in a wrecked helicopter that crashed in the dark waters of the Los Angeles Harbor near San Pedro.
The helicopter was operated by J. J. Helicopters, which reported the aircraft left Torrance Municipal Airport around 4:30 p.m. Wednesday but failed to return, said Phillip Sanfield of the Port of Los Angeles.
The crash of the small, two-bladed single-engine Robinson R22 triggered a multi-agency search after it was reported at 5:40 p.m. Wednesday just inside the harbor breakwater. The search was focused on an area near the Angels Gate lighthouse, one of two entrances to the Port of Los Angeles, Sanfield said.
The helicopter was spotted about mid-morning Thursday, approximately 3,000 feet south of the lighthouse, according to Los Angeles Port Police Chief Tom Gazsi.
Authorities found the wreckage of the helicopter in the water, with the remains of two people aboard, Sanfield said.
Authorities have not positively identified the victims, described by the coroner’s office as men in their 40s.
However, one of them was believed to be Michael Justice, a former news photographer who was on assignment for the Port of Los Angeles. He was taking aerial shots of three cruise ships in port on Wednesday, Sanfield said.
The other man is believed to be the pilot, Christopher Reed, according to Gazsi, who briefed reporters at port police headquarters.
Reed was employed by J. J. Helicopters and port officials have been in contact with his family since Wednesday evening, Stansfield said.
Coroner’s personnel were on scene and along with the Federal Aviation Administration will confirm the men’s identities, Gazsi said.
“It is presumed at this time that Michael Justice was one of the passengers on board,” the chief said. “Michael is a renowned international photographer, had done extensive work with the Port of Los Angeles, highly respected, highly revered, and his work will go on into perpetuity with great regard, respect in honor, if in fact it is Michael, he will be greatly missed by the Port of Los Angeles family as well as his family and relatives.
Christopher Reed is recognized as an accomplished aviator, and assuming that this is in fact Christopher based on the information we had last night, and the identity of the aircraft, he also was an accomplished individual in his field and will be greatly missed.”
The helicopter, in water that’s 15-20 feet deep, was expected to be recovered later Thursday, put on a barge and taken to Coast Guard Station Los Angeles-Long Beach, Gazsi said.
Once the recovery is complete, the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board will investigate the cause of the crash, he said.
In a Facebook posting, Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino said Justice “was one of the nicest and most talented photographers I had ever met. My deepest sympathies go out to all of his family, friends and colleagues. He will be missed.”
Justice’s godson, Casey Warren, told ABC7 that the helicopter had been booked for an hour.
“I was supposed to be on the craft with him, and I got booted because the R44 we wanted wasn’t available, so he went up in a 22 and it only seats one,” Warren said.
Justice’s car was parked at J.J. Helicopters.
“He never came home. I got worried so I started calling,” Warren said. “I figured I’d come down here and see if his car is still here; that’s his car.”
Justice traveled the world for his work and took photos for National Geographic. He also flew with the Blue Angels, and took photos of Mother Teresa.
The U.S. Coast Guard and crews from the Los Angeles city and county fire departments mounted a search along with boat crews from the Long Beach Fire Department, said U.S. Coast Guard Petty Officer 1st Class SondraKay Kneen.
Multiple witnesses aboard at least one cruise ship reported a small black helicopter hitting the water near the harbor breakwall, according to the Coast Guard.
The Angels Gate entrance to the port was closed while the search was conducted, but the other entrance to the port — about two miles away, toward the entrance to the Port of Long Beach — remained open, and Port of Los Angeles operations were continuing, Sanfield said.
The Angel’s Gate entry was reopened after the helicopter was found, according to the Coast Guard.
Underwater sound-detecting devices were deployed in an effort to find the aircraft, Sanfield said.
Gazsi said the helicopter went down at the fall of night in rainy, overcast conditions, hampering search efforts.
“We resumed significant operations this morning,” he said.
—City News Service