Los Angeles Fire Department
Historical Archive

Ken Lubas/Los Angeles Times
Wreckage of Fire Department helicopter rests in Griffith Park after crash that killed four people and injured two.

 4 Killed as
Fire Department
Copter Crashes



A Los Angeles Fire Department helicopter rushing a critically injured 12-year-old girl to a hospital crashed in Griffith Park on Monday morning, killing her and three others on board and seriously injuring two more, authorities said.

The young victim, Norma Vides, of Sun Valley, had been airlifted from near the scene of a car accident minutes before the chopper went down at 7:43 a.m. about 50 yards from a residential neighborhood.

Killed were three members of the Fire Department rescue team with nearly 50 years of combined experience: paramedics Michael A. Butler, 33, of Santa Clarita, and Eric F. Reiner, 33, of Carson, and Michael McComb, 48, a "helitac" flight crew member who was scheduled to retire in July after 25 years with the department.


The pilot and another crew member survived and were listed in serious but stable condition Monday night.

The car accident that injured Norma occurred as her 17-year-old cousin was driving her and five other family members, including her mother, to three different schools. Authorities said the boy may have been blinded by the low, early morning sun.

Norma was one of six children living with Genoveva Anaya, a Salvadoran immigrant who is raising her family in a four-bedroom apartment. Her husband is in El Salvador, waiting to finalize immigration papers, neighbors said.

Fire Chief William Bamattre said witnesses "reported seeing some problems with the tail rotor" before the helicopter crashed. Fire officials believe that the tail of the aircraft had begun to disintegrate moments before the crash but said no cause had been determined.

The accident was a devastating blow for the Fire Department, coming two weeks after Capt. Joseph C. Dupee was killed in a factory blaze in South-Central Los Angeles--the first death of an on-duty city firefighter since 1984.

"It almost seems surreal...that this could happen one on top of another," said city Fire Commission member Elizabeth Lowe. "Everybody is trying to put one foot in front of the other, but with an aura of disbelief and a huge sadness."

Witnesses said the white-and-red Bell helicopter clipped tall pine and redwood trees before slamming into a patch of grass just off Fern Dell Drive, close to a Los Feliz neighborhood of elegant residences.

"He wanted to land, but I guess he was avoiding the homes," said resident Janet La Pietra. "He was swaying back and forth, flying very low."

First on the scene were a group of general relief recipients who were on work detail in the park. Several of them rushed to the downed craft in a futile attempt to rescue those inside.

"It looked like he was going to come down right on top of us," said one of the workers, Orlando Beard, of Hollywood. "We tried to get in, but the doors were jammed."

Pilot Steven L. Robinson, 32, of Agoura, and flight crew member Dennis J. Silgen, 52, of Thousand Oaks, were taken to County-USC Medical Center for treatment of multiple broken bones and head injuries, authorities said.

Helicopters Grounded
In the hours after the accident, the Fire Department ordered its remaining fleet of five helicopters temporarily grounded as investigators tried to determine what went wrong.


The chain of events that led to the tragedy began at 6:40 a.m. with two separate but related automobile accidents on Sunland Boulevard in Sun Valley. Both involved city sanitation trucks. Authorities said the collisions may have been caused by visual impairment from the sun.

A city sanitation truck had been rear-ended by a sport-utility vehicle, and a second city truck stopped to offer assistance. That truck was struck from behind by Norma Vide's family's car, a Japanese compact driven by her cousin, Pedro. Also inside were her mother, two of her mother's grandsons, and two of Norma's sisters.

Norma suffered serious head injuries.

"She was taking a turn for the worse. They felt...her level of consciousness was deteriorating and she also would need a pediatric trauma center," Fire Department Medical Director Dr. Marc Eckstein said. "It was a good call on the part of the paramedics."

There are two trauma centers in the San Fernando Valley, but neither specializes in pediatric care. So the helicopter, known as "Fire Three," landed on the playground at Stonehurst Elementary School to pick up the girl, then took off on its flight to Children's Hospital in Los Angeles, about 10 miles away.

Helicopter evacuations are routine for the Fire Department, which performs about 200 airlift rescues a year and had not experienced a fatal airlift accident in 24 years.

As the helicopter passed over the crest of the Hollywood Hills, Ignacio Arellano, 28, was standing in the parking lot at the Griffith Observatory, having just completed a morning jog.

"The white metal sheets were flying out, then they were floating in the air" as the craft went down, he said in Spanish. "It turned 45 degrees, then it steadied a bit. Two seconds later, it started to go straight down."

A Fire Department spokesman said later that the tail rotor was found half a mile from the wreckage of the fuselage.

Down on Fern Dell Drive, near a small stream that is popular with hikers, the sound of the struggling helicopter interrupted the early morning calm of joggers running through the park and families in the nearby neighborhood getting their children ready for school.

"I was eating my breakfast, and I heard a helicopter that sounded like it was really close to the house," said Chumi Paul, 30, a resident of Ferndale Place. "That's what I thought it was."

Then moments before the helicopter hit the ground, witnesses said, the aircraft suddenly went quiet.

"It sounded like the engine died, it just cut," said Aluizio Cuoto, a 33-year old Reseda pet groomer who was driving to an appointment. "The pilot tried to land it; you could tell he knew something was wrong... He tried to land in the middle of the intersection" of Fern Dell and Red Oak drives.

"He was straight when he hit the first tree, and then he bounced and hit the second tree, and then came down on his side," Cuoto said. Seconds after the crash, Cuoto joined others in trying to pry the helicopter door open. Someone took a fire extinguisher from a nearby park rangers substation to put out a small fire in one of the craft's engines.

"One of the guys was mumbling a little bit, another was breathing," Cuoto said of the victims. "We couldn't reach them."

Cuoto said Fire Department personnel were on the scene in about 10 minutes.

Authorities quickly cordoned off the wreckage. Two clipped trees loomed over the fallen helicopter, which lay on its side and appeared largely intact, except for the tail which had snapped in half. Bits of wood, sheared off as the chopper plowed though the trees, were scattered throughout the area.

Mayor Richard Riordan arrived at the scene of the accident just after 9 a.m.

"My heart is focused on the victims and their families," Riordan said. "I ask all Angelenos to say a prayer for those that died and those who were injured."

Second-Oldest Chopper
The helicopter that crashed was the second oldest in the department's fleet. Officials said it had flown just 15 or 16 hours since it was last inspected in January.

The single-engine Bell 205A-1 helicopter-the commercial version of the UH-1H "Huey" made famous in the Viet Nam War-was delivered new in 1976 to the city fleet. It had logged 5,114 hours of flight time.

"None of those helicopters fly unless they're maintained well,"Bamattre said.

After the accident, representatives of the National Transportation Safety Board arrived at the offices of the Fire Department's Air Operation Division at Van Nuys Airport to pick up copies of the craft's maintenance records, sources said.

"There seem to be no maintenance issues at this point," said Les Iden, assistant general manager for fleet services at the General Services Department. "But the investigation is far from over."

The helicopter was the second in the city Fire Department's six-chopper fleet to crash in five days. A Bell 206 helicopter became tangled in power lines March 19 near Santa Clarita, but city officials said it was because the pilot had been practicing landings and was flying too low. He was unhurt.

At least one representative from Fort Worth-based Bell Helicopter was to visit the Griffith Park crash site Monday.

Bob Leder, a spokesman for the company, said the helicopter "hasn't been overflown. You would consider that a low-mileage aircraft."

For the 3,500 men women of the Los Angeles Fire Department speculation about the cause of the crash was left for another day. It was a time to mourn those colleagues who had died.

Butler, a 13-year veteran of the department, is survived by his wife, Maria, who is four months pregnant, said Fire Department spokesman Steve Ruda.

Reiner, a nine-year veteran, is survived by his wife, Lisa, and their four children.

Capt. Keith Massey of Fire Station 90 in Van Nuys described McComb as a strong and aggressive firefighter.

"He would be constantly moving forward to get to the seed of the fire," Massey said. "He was fiercely proud of the helicopter operation. He was always striving to be perfect because of the inherent dangers of being around helicopters. He was hard on himself when he made mistakes.

Times staff writer Jeff Leeds and correspondent Darrell Satzman contributed to this story.

    Los Angeles Times
    Tuesday, March 24, 1998

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