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Kobe Bryant's helicopter got lost in cloud before fatal crash

By LIU YINMENG in Los Angeles | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2020-01-28 12:26
Fans gather Monday at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, California, Kobe Bryant's 'home', to mourn the late Lakers star. LIU YINMENG / CHINA DAILY

The helicopter carrying NBA legend Kobe Bryant climbed around 2,300 feet to avoid a cloud layer shortly before it took a left descending turn and crashed into the side of a hill, officials said during a news conference Monday afternoon.

"It was a pretty devastating accident scene," said Jennifer Homendy, spokesperson for the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), which is taking the lead into the investigation of the helicopter crash that killed the 41-year-old retired Los Angeles Lakers player, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, and seven others on board Sunday morning.

Officials said they are looking at an extensive debris field that's around 500 to 600 feet wide and an impact crater about 1,085 feet above sea level.

"There is an impact area on one of the hills, and a piece of the tail is down the hill on the left side of the hill, the fuselage is over on the other side of the hill, the main rotor is about 100 feet beyond that," Homendy said.

While it has been reported that foggy weather played a major role in the crash, officials said the weather is just a part of the investigation. Officials are also considering human, mechanical and environmental factors.

Visibility was so poor in the region at the time of the flight that the Los Angeles Police Department and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department grounded their helicopters.

Asked whether the pilot should have been flying in the fog at the time, Homendy said, "That's part of the investigation."

Local authorities, the NTSB and the Federal Aviation Administration, as well as the FBI, are working together to determine the cause for the crash. The helicopter was a Sikorsky S-76B, built in 1991.

The other victims on the flight were Alyssa Altobelli, a teammate of Gianna Bryant's, her father John Altobelli, head baseball coach at Orange Coast College, mother Keri Altobelli, Christina Mauser, Payton Chester, Sarah Chester and pilot Ara Zobayan.

Bryant was on his way to coach the girls' basketball game Sunday afternoon. The crash took place just a little before 10 am PT Sunday.

The aircraft departed from John Wayne Airport in Orange County at around 9:06 am, local time. It headed northwest over Los Angeles on its way to Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy in Newbury Park.

It was originally flying under visual flight rules (VFR), but while flying over Burbank Airport, the pilot requested to fly in "special visual flight rules", which allow aircraft to proceed through controlled airspace at less than the basic VFR minimums of 1,000 feet ceiling with 3 miles visibility, officials said.

While waiting for approval, the aircraft circled for around 12 minutes. The pilot then asked for "flight following", which is radar assistance for the flights that allows them to avoid traffic. He was told that the aircraft was flying too low for that.

Shortly afterward, the pilot told the air traffic controller the helicopter was climbing to avoid the cloud layer, but did not reply when asked what he planned to do. The last radar contact was recorded at 9:45 am, consistent with the time of the accident.

Bryant was known to use the helicopter to shuttle between his Orange County home and the Staples Center in Los Angeles for games.

The recovery effort is expected to take several days because of the condition of the crash site and its remote location, said Los Angeles County Chief Medical Examiner Jonathans Lucas. Officials closed the road leading to the crash site on Monday, which fans flooded as soon as the news hit.

Hundreds of thousands of fans around the world have been gathering at various locations, including the Staples Center in Los Angeles, where Bryant played, as well as his favorite restaurant and his church, to pay their respects and to seek solace.

Lesley Gerona, a 28-year-old nurse who went to pay tribute to Bryant at Staples Center with her boyfriend on Monday said she was sitting at home when her friend told her about Bryant's passing. She said she was in denial at first and broke down crying when the truth sank in.

"Kobe has been a very big figure in my childhood. Growing up, my dad and my brother got me watching basketball, and watching Kobe. He really brought my family together. He's my idol, and a hero to everyone. He goes beyond basketball," she said.

Omar Posadas, a 30-year-old from Los Angeles, said he took the day off to go to Staples Center with his family. He described the experience of finding out about Kobe and his daughter's deaths "a nightmare".

"I just got to be here for Kobe. He's LA," he said, adding, "it hit hard to me, it hit hard worldwide," he said.

In the US and around the world, politicians, celebrities and Bryant's fellow athletes expressed their sadness at losing the iconic sports figure.

"Kobe Bryant, despite being one of the truly great basketball players of all time, was just getting started in life. He loved his family so much, and had such strong passion for the future. The loss of his beautiful daughter, Gianna, makes this moment even more devastating," US President Donald Trump wrote on Twitter.

Cui Tiankai, China's ambassador to the US, also took to social media to express his condolences.

"Saddened by the tragic loss of #KobeBryant. An inspiration for many and a legend of his generation, he will always be remembered for his contribution to the world of sport and to #ChinaUS people-to-people exchanges. My deepest condolences to his family and other victims," the ambassador wrote.

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