Tracking clues in 2 crashes

Lead investigators are pointing at the differences between two recent helicopter crashes rather than their shared characteristics.

“They were random, unplanned events,” said Brian Rayner, lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board.

In his 11 years of experience, Rayner said he has witnessed only one other instance in which two accidents occurred as closely together. “But it’s very uncommon,” he said.

Rayner was piecing together answers to the Thursday Heli-USA helicopter crash that took the lives of four people and injured three when he and other officials got the call that another crash had taken place Sunday.

The second crash occurred at YMCA Camp Nauea in Ha‘ena near Makua, commonly known as Tunnels Beach.

Donald Torres, the 30-year-old Kaua‘i pilot of that aircraft, owned by Inter Island Helicopters, sustained minor injuries.

The likely cause of the Inter Island Helicopter crash was the failure of the rotor gear box, Rayner said, which was “no longer installed” on the crumpled helicopter.

Also missing were output shaft linkages and the tail rotor itself, he said. Officials have said the cause of the Heli-USA crash was hydraulic failure.

One person died in the Sunday accident, Michael Gershon, 60, a visitor from Walnut Creek, Calif., officials said yesterday

Those hospitalized from the accident are Douglas Barton, 60, and Judy Barton, 51, both of Newport, N.H., and Dania Hansen, 60, of Los Altos, Calif.

Hansen was at Wilcox Memorial Hospital in serious condition at press time, after being upgraded from critical condition earlier in the day, said hospital spokeswoman Lani Yukimura.

The Bartons were in critical condition late Sunday afternoon when they were flown to Queen’s Medical Center in Honolulu, Yukimura said.

Rayner said in the moments preceding the second crash, pieces of the helicopter fell into the ocean.

Divers recovered two pieces of wreckage yesterday, Rayner said. However, at press time, it was unclear which pieces they were.

Witnesses had led firefighters and lifeguards to search for missing pieces, including one of the blades.

Whether one crash was “worse” than the other, Rayner said, is not a fair comparison.

“Both accidents were clearly significant events — both led to fatalities. It doesn’t get any worse than that,” he said.

Rayner did note that the attempted crash landing of the Heli-USA A-Star helicopter resulted in a nose-dive, causing more severe “crushed deformation” than sustained by Inter Island Helicopter’s aircraft. That helicopter had a “more controlled descent,” Rayner said.

There were other dissimilarities, he said, including the fact that the Heli-USA A-Star helicopter’s pontoons — which serve as a sort of “airbag” for the ocean — were deployed.

The pontoons were likely engaged after the helicopter made impact with the ground, because the pontoons were “relatively pristine,” and showed no clay or grass marks, Rayner said.

While the Inter Island helicopter had no deployed pontoons, whether the aircraft was equipped with them is unclear.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor said pontoons or life jackets are required on all air tours in the state for single-engine helicopters that travel beyond the shore of any island, regardless of whether the helicopter is within gliding distance of the shore, unless the helicopter is equipped with flotation devices or each person on-board is wearing approved flotation gear.

• Amanda C. Gregg, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or agregg@kauaipubco.com.

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