Four visitors and a pilot died when a tour helicopter crashed into the eastern slope of Mt. Wai‘ale‘ale yesterday morning.
The crash in the center of the island involving a Bell 206B Jet Ranger owned by Jack Harter Helicopters occurred during what authorities said was a one-hour tour of Kaua‘i.
Authorities said one of the passengers, a woman, survived the crash that occurred at about 9 a.m, but died at about 3 p.m. before rescue workers could remove her from the site due to heavy cloud cover.
Her companion and another couple were killed in the crash.
The pilot was identified as Mark Lundgren, a former Navy pilot who had flown for Jack Harter Helicopters since 1995, said Casey Riemer, general manager of the tour operator. The identities of the passengers has not been released by authorities.
It was the first accident for Jack Harter Helicopters since the company began in 1975, Riemer said.
Another Jack Harter Helicopter flight spotted the downed helicopter at the 4,500 elevation of the mountain slope at about noon.
Shortly afterwards a three-member Kaua‘i Fire Department search and rescue team were flown aboard an Inter-Island helicopter to the crash site located about 750 feet below the 5,200-foot-high peak at Wai‘ale‘ale.
Riemer said company officials were notifying families of the victims.
The cause of the crash is yet to be determined. Officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board officials are scheduled to arrive on Kaua‘i as soon as possible to begin an investigation.
Riemer told reporters at the Lihu‘e Airport that the helicopter took off from a helipad at the Lihu‘e Airport at 8 a.m.
He said company officials notified the control tower at the Lihu‘e Airport and the Federal Aviation Administration at 9:30 a.m. that the helicopter was overdue.
Company officials halted tour operations, and flew two other company-owned helicopters, six-passenger A-Star aircraft, to search for the missing helicopter, Riemer said. Helicopters from other tour companies also assisted with the search, county officials said.
Authorities said they didn’t know when the bodies and the wreckage would be recovered, but they ruled out recovery attempts at night due to safety reasons. The FAA is expected to investigate the crash before any recovery efforts are undertaken. An emergency wreckage area where recovered pieces of the wrecked helicopter are to be assembled is being set up by the FAA at the commuter air terminal at Lihu‘e Airport to help in the investigation.
The aircraft was destroyed in the crash, according to the FAA.
Authorities were prepared to receive the sole crash survivor at the Lihu‘e Airport before it became known yesterday afternoon that she had died from her injuries.
Kaua‘i police officers cordoned off an area located across from the helipads. Firefighters and an American Medical Response ambulance team stood ready to treat the woman.
The Rev. Jan Rudinoff from St. Michael’s & All Angels Episcopal Church in Lihu‘e and representatives from the Kauai Hospice also were at the airport to give comfort to her.
Following the accident, Air Kauai and some other tour companies ceased operations and rescheduled tours.
Jeff Lopatin, an investment analyst, and his wife, Amy, a jewelry designer, both from Manhattan, New York, said they had considered flying with Air Kauai, Jack Harter and Inter-Island companies because the businesses had good safety records.
The couple said their afternoon flight was rescheduled to another day they couldn’t fly on because they were going home.
Jeff Lopatin, who witnessed terrorist planes slam into the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, said the Kaua‘i helicopter crash caught him by surprise.
“It was a terrible thing to happen to these people,” he said. “People are on vacation and this has to happen to them.” His wife said “they have our sympathies.”
The accident was the second fatal helicopter crash in Hawai‘i within the past six weeks.
On June 15, four people were killed when a tour helicopter they were aboard crashed near the Kilauea Volcano on the Big Island.
Veteran helicopter pilot Jack Harter and his wife Bev are the owners of Jack Harter Helicopters. He is credited with pioneering the tour helicopter industry on Kaua‘i, starting out in 1962. According to a company Web site, the business maintained a perfect safety record.
The Web site states that if company officials felt bad weather would affect a tour it was not worth the “time and money” of their customers to fly and the flight would be canceled.
The FAA granted Harter’s company a deviation from FAA rules that severely restrict minimum flight altitudes, the Web site said, and that company pilots are allowed to fly down to 500 feet above the ground, the lowest flight level allowed for tour helicopters in Hawai‘i.
Staff writer Lester Chang can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 225) and mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org
The Associated Press contributed to this report.