Four Killed in TV Helicopter Collision

The choppers came down in a park.
The choppers came down in a park.

PHOENIX, ARIZONA (CBS/AP) -- Four people were killed when two television news helicopters collided and crashed Friday while covering a police pursuit.  It happened during the lunch hour as the two choppers transmitted live images of the high-speed chase.

Just before the collision, the driver of the truck that police were chasing jumped out of the flatbed pickup and carjacked another truck.  Eyewitnesses say the two helicopters circled closer and closer to each other until they collided.  The flaming wreckage came down on the lawn in front of a boarded-up church at Steele Indian School Park.

The crash killed KNXV-TV pilot-reporter Craig Smith and photographer Rick Krolak.  Also killed were KTVK-TV pilot-reporter Scott Bowerbank and photographer Jim Cox.  No one on the ground was hurt.

TV viewers did not actually witness the accident because cameras aboard both aircraft were pointed at the ground. But they saw images from one of the helicopters break up and begin to spin before the station abruptly switched to the studio.

Moments later, other stations in Phoenix carried news of the crash.

Police and the SWAT Team caught the suspect a short time later after he barricaded himself in a house.  He was charged with several violations, and according to Police Chief Jack Harris, he could face charges in the deaths of the two air crews.

The FAA says TV helicopters have not posed any major safety problems.  A spokesman says air traffic controllers typically clear them into an area to cover a chase.  Then the pilots are responsible for keeping themselves separated.

Keith McCutchen, a past president of the National Broadcast Pilots Association, says "pilot awareness" is vital.  He says they have to keep track of both the story they're covering on the ground and other aircraft.

Mary Lewis said she was stuck in traffic with her four grandsons and was watching the helicopters. She turned to talk to the children, then saw a fireball in the air when she looked up again.

"I looked up and I see this 'boom,' and I see one of the helicopters coming down, and I said 'Oh my God,"' Lewis said. She said she went to the crash site to help, but there was nothing she could do.

"It's nothing there," Lewis said. "Just burned-up stuff."

Barbara Cochran, president of the Radio-Television News Directors Association in Washington, said the association does not track fatalities among helicopter news pilots, but she could not recall another example of two news choppers colliding while covering a story.

"The news directors at the stations are members of our association, and our heart really goes out to them in a situation like this," she said. "These pilots, they are very professional.  They combine the skills of pilots and skills as journalists.  It's something that's very, very sad."

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The Associated Press and the CBS Television Network contributed to this report.