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Feds: Crash investigation ‘challenging’

LIHUE — Four investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board have landed on Kauai, taking over the investigation into Thursday’s helicopter crash that killed seven people.

While NTSB has been investigating the incident since the wreckage was found in Koke’e, these are the first “boots on the ground” for the agency, according to NTSB spokesman Eric Weiss.

“There are lots of things that don’t involve the wreckage in the investigation; looking into the pilot’s history and training, the weather, those factors,” Weiss said Monday. “There’s lots of things that we’ve been working on.”

NTSB couldn’t divulge any details related to results or discoveries in the investigation on Monday, but said information and an initial report on the crash could be coming out today.

Kauai Police Department confirmed on Saturday there were no survivors from that Safari Helicopters tour, which was scheduled to arrive back at Lihue Airport at 5:30 p.m. Thursday.

According to a preliminary report, the last contact with the helicopter was about 4:40 p.m., when the pilot relayed that the tour was leaving the Waimea Canyon area.

Officials were notified of the overdue helicopter about 30 minutes after it was scheduled back and a multi-agency search was launched that night. The wreckage was found the next day.

The copter apparently struck a cliff face before falling 50 to 100 yards about 1 mile inland, Kauai fire Battalion Chief Solomon Konoho told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser.

The NTSB investigating team flew over the crash site Monday, but didn’t reach the wreckage in rough terrain. They’re battling the same weather patterns and harsh terrain that first responders encountered.

Once they get to the crash site in the Koke’e Mountains near the Nu’alolo area investigators will be looking at wreckage patterns and other evidence to help determine the cause of the crash.

“The logistics of this particular site are very challenging, even by NTSB standards,” Weiss said. “I can’t exaggerate the difficulty of the terrain.”

National Weather Service meteorologist Gavin Shigesato said the agency was not releasing information on Thursday’s weather conditions on Kauai.

“We’re going to hold off an any comments at this time just for the NTSB to do their investigation,” he said. “In that mountainous terrain, there are not a lot of observations that can be taken, but we’ll leave that up to the incident report of the NTSB.”

Experts say Kauai’s topography and weather pose unique challenges to pilots and that it would be difficult to find anywhere to make an emergency landing. U.S. Rep. Ed Case of Hawaii has said more needs to be done to make tour helicopters and small planes safe.

The helicopter company, Safari Helicopters, has had 11 enforcement actions since 1994, the Federal Aviation Administration said. The violations involved drug and alcohol testing and hazardous materials shipping.

“We closed all of them with warning letters or letters of correction, which are on the low end of the enforcement scale,” FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said.

FAA records showed four previous incidents involving Safari Helicopters since 2001. None involved major injuries.

According to preliminary reports from a flight manifest, Kauai police believe the pilot to be 69-year-old Paul Matero of Wailua and two of the passengers to be 47-year-old Amy Gannon and 13-year-old Jocelyn Gannon of Madison, Wisconsin. The four other passengers are believed to be a family from Switzerland — a 50-year-old female, 49-year-old male, 13-year-old female and a 10-year old female. Their names have not yet been released.

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Associated Press contributed to this report.

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