Newly released audio from the Los Angeles County Fire Department paints a clearer picture of what happened when a helicopter crashed in Calabasas, Calif., on Jan. 26, killing Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others.
In the audio recordings, multiple callers say they could hear the crash but couldn’t see it, claiming thick fog in the air was hiding the helicopter until it burst into flames on the mountainside.
“A helicopter crashed into a mountain. We heard it, and now I’m looking at the flames,” says one caller, who was about a half-kilometre away from the crash site at the time. “We’re looking at the flames right now on the hills.”
Another caller described hearing a “boom” and then spotting the flames but said they were unable to see the initial impact.
“The hill,” the caller says when asked what is on fire. “But whatever crashed into the hill is also on fire… I think it was an airplane. A small plane.”
One caller said the helicopter collided into a part of the mountain that was “in clouds.”
The final caller rang up the fire department twice to clarify the location of the crash, which also killed John, Keri and Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah and Payton Chester, Christina Mauser and pilot Ara Zobayan.
While timestamps weren’t released with the calls, they reportedly happened around 10 a.m. local time. Authorities were dispatched around 9:50 a.m., KTLA reports.
It was later determined that the helicopter company responsible for the vehicle, which was heading to Bryant’s Mamba Academy for a game in Thousand Oaks, wasn’t certified to fly in foggy conditions.
Island Express Helicopters, which owned the Sikorsky S-76B that crashed, was limited to operating under visual flight rules, meaning pilots must be able to see clearly outside the aircraft in daylight, according to Keith Holloway, a National Transportation Safety Board spokesman.
It also didn’t have a recommended warning system to alert the pilot he was too close to land, though it’s not clear if this would have averted the crash. The pilot, federal investigators said on Jan. 28, could have lost control and plunged into the fog-shrouded mountain.
Zobayan, the pilot, had been climbing out of the clouds when the aircraft banked left and began a sudden and terrifying 366-metre descent that lasted nearly a minute.
“This is a pretty steep descent at high speed,” said Jennifer Homendy of the National Transportation Safety Board. “We know that this was a high-energy impact crash.”
Bryant and his daughter are survived by wife and mom Vanessa Bryant, and the basketball star’s three daughters Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and seven-month-old Capri.
Vanessa broke her silence following the death of her husband and daughter on Jan. 30, writing: “We are completely devastated … There aren’t enough words to describe our pain right now. I take comfort in knowing that Kobe and Gigi both knew that they were so deeply loved.”