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.
An NTSB “Go Team” met with local authorities Monday morning, setting organizational boundaries for the probe, even as work continued to recover the bodies of the nine people who died in the Sunday morning crash near Las Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street.
NTSB officials plan to hold a late-afternoon media briefing to discuss the investigation, but little is likely to be known about what brought down the Sikorsky S-76B helicopter amid dense fog until the agency’s investigation is completed. Such probes can often take a year or more to complete.
Bryant, 41, and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna were killed in the 9:47 a.m. Sunday crash. The pair were heading to Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks, where he was set to coach his daughter’s basketball team in a tournament game.
Although none of the victims of the crash have been formally identified by local authorities, relatives and friends identified them as:
— 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.
The area 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.
The helicopter took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9:06 a.m. Sunday, records show. The crash occurred in foggy conditions, which prompted the Los Angeles Police Department to ground its helicopter fleet, the nation’s largest such fleet. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva also said his agency had no helicopters in the air at the time due to the conditions.
Friends noted that Bryant’s pilot, Zobayan, was an instrument-rated pilot — meaning he was qualified to fly in foggy and cloudy conditions — with more than 1,000 hours piloting the craft.
Friends remembering Zobayan on social media said he taught aspiring helicopter pilots to fly.
John Altobelli was scheduled on Tuesday to begin his 28th year coaching the Orange Coast College baseball team.
“It is with the heaviest of hearts that we announce the passing of Orange Coast College head baseball coach John Altobelli,” the college announced Sunday. “He was a coach, a colleague, a mentor and a friend at OCC for 27 years.”
Altobelli was accompanying his wife and daughter to attend young Alyssa’s game at the Mamba Sports Academy.
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.”
Harbor Day School issued a statement saying the campus was “devastated by the news.”
“We are mourning the loss of members of our community. Our first priority is the well-being of our students. As news is publicized, we will ensure that our support team is made available to assist and counsel our students. We appreciate your patience and understanding,” according to the school.
Payton Chester also played on Bryant’s Mamba Academy team, and was being accompanied to the game aboard the helicopter 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.
“As a principal, we work with some amazing families,” he wrote. “The Chesters were one of those — engaged, supportive, encouraging and full of mischief and laughter, and they had the best kiddos! … While the world mourns the loss of a dynamic athlete and humanitarian, I mourn the loss of two people just as important. 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.
Bryant and his wife Vanessa, who wed in 2001, had four daughters, Natalia, 17, Gianna, 13, Bianca, 3, and Capri, 7 months.
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.
The Lakers, who play the Clippers Tuesday, canceled Monday’s practice.
Tributes to Bryant — considered one of the greatest to ever play the game of basketball — continued to pour in Monday. Los Angeles-area radio stations planned to observe a moment at noon in his honor. Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered flags in Los Angeles to be lowered to half-staff.
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.
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.”
Bryant lived in Newport Beach, where city officials sent out the following statement Sunday: “It is with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to Newport Beach resident and international sports legend Kobe Bryant. Our prayers are with his family, friends, colleagues and neighbors as our community grieves this sudden and devastating loss. Kobe leaves behind an unmatched legacy of excellence, on and off the court, that will not be forgotten.”
Bryant last tweeted himself Saturday night, congratulating current Lakers superstar LeBron James on passing Bryant for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.
“Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother,” the tweet said.