As Los Angeles continued mourning the death of Laker legend Kobe Bryant, National Transportation Safety Board investigators began the arduous — and likely months-long — task Monday of determining what caused the Calabasas helicopter crash that killed him and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter.
“We’re here to conduct a safety investigation, and our mission is not to just determine what happened, but why it happened and how it happened to prevent a similar accident from ever happening again,” NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy told reporters at a late-afternoon briefing.
An NTSB “Go Team” conducted an organizational meeting Monday morning, establishing investigative groups among the various agencies involved in the investigation — the NTSB, Federal Aviation Administration, helicopter-manufacturer Sikorsky, aircraft owner Island Express Holding Corp., the National Air Traffic Controllers Association and aircraft engine manufacturer Pratt & Whitney Canada.
The helicopter crashed at about 9:45 a.m. Sunday in the area of Las Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street. The helicopter, which departed from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, was bound for Camarillo, with the passengers on board heading to Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, where he was set to coach his daughter, Gianna, in a tournament game.
Two other 13-year-old members of the team were also on board and among the dead.
According to Homendy, when the pilot approached Hollywood Burbank Airport Sunday morning, he “requested to transit controlled airspace under special visual flight rules,” which would allow him to fly at less than the normal minimums of 1,000 feet and three miles of visibility. The helicopter circled for 12 minutes while awaiting approval from air-traffic controllers, but the request was granted, she said.
“The helicopter transited the Burbank and Van Nuys airspace at 1,400 feet, and proceeded south then west,” Homendy said. “The pilot requested `flight following’ (radar assistance) to continue to Camarillo, but (air-traffic controllers) advised the pilot that they were too low for flight following. Approximately four minutes later, the pilot advised they were climbing to avoid a cloud layer. When (air-traffic control) asked what the pilot planned to do, there was no reply. Radar data indicates the helicopter climbed to 2,300 feet then began a left-descending turn. Last radar contact was around 9:45 a.m. and was consistent with the accident location.”
The Sikorsky S-76B helicopter crashed into a hillside, and Homendy said it left a debris field that stretches between 500 and 600 feet.
In addition to Bryant, 41, and his daughter, killed in the crash were:
— Ara Zobayan, the instrument-rated pilot who was flying the helicopter;
— John Altobelli, 56, the veteran baseball coach at Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, along with his wife, Keri, and their 13-year-old daughter Alyssa, a teammate of Gianna;
— Sarah Chester, 45, and her 13-year-old daughter Payton, who also played with Gianna and Alyssa; and
— Christina Mauser, 38, one of Bryant’s assistant coaches on the Mamba Academy team.
Coroner’s office officials said recovering the victims’ remains from the rugged crash site could take “a few days.” As of Sunday night, a coroner’s Special Operations Response Team had recovered the remains of three people, and they were taken to the coroner’s office for examination and formal identification. The coroner team had to suspend the search due to darkness Sunday night, but efforts resumed Monday morning to recover the remains of the remaining victims.
None of the victims has been formally identified by the coroner’s office, but all have been identified by relatives and friends.
The crash site has been cordoned off by the sheriff’s department, accessible only to area residents with identification, and the airspace above it has been declared a no-fly zone. Sheriff Alex Villanueva said the department has deputies on horseback patrolling the rugged area, noting that people are trying to sneak into the area, some crawling through the brush in hopes of avoiding detection.
Much of the area was draped in fog the morning of the crash — thick enough to prompt the Los Angeles Police Department to ground its helicopter fleet. Villanueva said Sunday that sheriff’s helicopters also were not flying due to the conditions.
Homendy said the weather conditions will be part of the crash investigation, and she asked that anyone who has photographs of the weather conditions in the Calabasas area around the time of the crash to send copies to email@example.com.
“We’re not just focusing on weather here though,” she said. “We take a broad look at everything around an investigation, around an accident. We look at man, machine and the environment, and weather is just a small portion of that.”
Friends noted that Bryant’s pilot, Zobayan, was instrument-rated — meaning he was qualified to fly in foggy and cloudy conditions — and had more than 1,000 hours piloting the craft.
Bryant, the son of former NBA star Joe “Jellybean” Bryant — joined the Lakers straight out of his Philadelphia-area high school in 1996. He led the Lakers to five NBA championships and was a perennial All-Star. Bryant and his wife Vanessa, who wed in 2001, had four daughters, Natalia, 17, Gianna, 13, Bianca, 3, and Capri, 7 months.
Bryant famously preferred to travel by helicopter, once telling GQ magazine that he would fly to home games so he could arrive fresh — instead of lingering in Los Angeles’ famed traffic for hours.
The Lakers had been scheduled to play the Clippers at Staples Center Tuesday night, but the game was postponed to allow the team to continue grieving Bryant’s death.
While tributes continued to mount for Bryant and his daughter, the other victims of the crash were also being honored.
John Altobelli was scheduled on Tuesday to begin his 28th year coaching the Orange Coast College baseball team. The team will go forward with its season-opening game. Players practiced Monday, and installed a banner in honor of Altobelli on the left-field wall of the college stadium.
Mauser was a mother of three children, aged 11, 9 and 3. She and her husband previously coached the girls’ basketball team at Harbor Day School in Corona del Mar, where Gianna was one of their players. Matt Mauser confirmed her death in a Facebook post, then appeared on NBC’s “Today” show Monday.
“I got three small kids and am trying to figure out how to navigate life with three kids and no mom,” he said.
Matt Mauser said Bryant chose his wife as an assistant coach “to teach the kids defense. They called her the mother of defense.”
Payton Chester also played on Bryant’s Mamba Academy team, and was being accompanied to the game by her mother, Sarah. Todd Schmidt, the former principal of Harbor View Elementary School in Corona del Mar, which Payton attended through fifth grade, paid tribute to the girl and her mother on Facebook.
“While the world mourns the loss of a dynamic athlete and humanitarian, I mourn the loss of two people just as important,” Chester said. “Their impact was just as meaningful, their loss will be just as keenly felt, and our hearts are just as broken.”
A family friend said Payton was attending St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano.
According to Business Insider, the helicopter that crashed Sunday was built in 1991 and owned by Island Express Holding Corp. and either chartered or leased by Bryant. The S-76 was designed for corporate transportation, especially within the oil industry, where executives were traveling between land and off-shore drilling platforms, and was inspired by the UH-60 Black Hawk military helicopter, according to the publication.
The site says the helicopter’s good safety record “has been largely attributed to its twin-turbine design, along with more rigorous training standards than some other civilian models, and the fact that it’s frequently flown by two pilots, unlike most light helicopters.”
Homendy said NTSB investigators will likely be on the scene for about five days to collect “perishable evidence,” but she stressed that a cause of the crash won’t be determined at the site. Investigators will only be collecting wreckage and whatever information they can. She noted that drones were used Monday to map the crash scene, and FBI investigators were assisting with the collection of evidence, although it is not a criminal investigation.
She noted that the helicopter was not outfitted with a “black box” flight recorder, but it was not required to have one.
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