I post this mostly because of the eyewitness account of the incident itself, however, my heart goes out to those involved. We know that those same witnesses will live with these images for the remainder of their lives.

Fiery helicopter crash kills four in Cranbrook. Aircraft appeared to struggle in air before it fell on 23-year-old student

Canwest News Service Published: Wednesday, May 14, 2008

CRANBROOK -- Horrified onlookers watched as a helicopter appeared to struggle in the air before it crashed in a ball of flames yesterday afternoon in a residential neighbourhood here, killing three people on-board and a 23-year-old man who was walking to mail a letter.

Isaiah Otieno, a 23-year-old Kenyan student, was struck and killed by the helicopter as he crossed the street to mail a letter home to his family, said his friend Isaac Hockley, a freelance photographer, who was on the scene taking photos. He was shocked to find out the charred victim was Otieno, whom he describes as "the most loyal kid I ever knew."

Otieno had moved to Cranbrook two years ago to take business classes at the College of the Rockies, said Hockley.

Hockley said Otieno's father is a senior politician in Nairobi, and comes from a large family.

"He was really into politics because of his dad, so he really stood up for what was right," Hockley said.

The Bell 206 helicopter crashed shortly after noon in clear weather near downtown Cranbrook, said Bill Yearwood, regional manager for the Transportation Safety Board.

School teacher Joe Pierre was driving to work when he was startled to see the helicopter flying very low above his car. His attention turned to a man walking across the street on his passenger side.

"I thought to myself now there is a happy-looking guy," recalled Pierre. "It was his face. It was his gait. He just looked happy -- and then wham. It just happened in that second.

"In that instant, my car was jarred and I looked out the window and there was a fireball explosion," said Pierre. "It was like a wall of flames."

Pierre, 40, pulled over and saw Otieno lying on the street, his clothes on fire. Two other men raced out of their houses, pulled the man away from the wreckage and tried to douse his burning clothes. One man, Fred Deschamps, used a water hose while another man tried to smother the flames with a towel.

Deschamps, 62, had been looking out his kitchen window when he saw the inferno and ran out to the street to help.

"We got the flames out. But I'm pretty sure he was deceased by then," he said.

Rhonda Brass, who lives about a block away, said she was in her kitchen when she heard the chopper hovering above her house.

"I just had the feeling that something wasn't right because it was so low," Brass said. "He was circling over and over this residential area ... I noticed he couldn't go to the right. Like he kept going counter-clockwise."

Fred Schindel said he watched the helicopter hover for 15 to 20 minutes before it fell. "It kept hanging in the air and banking to the left," said Schindel, a 67-year-old retired Cranbrook resident who had been outside cleaning his yard.

"But the helicopter couldn't seem to get any power. It was running full-tilt but it was like there was no power to pull the blades."

Finally, the helicopter's tail dropped at a 45-degree angle, said Schindel.

"The helicopter was above a house with a big tree and then it dropped and immediately burst into flames. Just a big black ball of fire came up.

B.C. Hydro said the two passengers on the helicopter were power line technicians. "The technicians were en route to a site doing a patrol of transmission lines," B.C. Hydro spokeswoman Susan Danard said. "They had just left the ground en route to the site when the crash occurred. We don't know what happened."

The technicians, whose names won't be released until their families are notified, were from the Cranbrook area.

They were travelling to a rural area to do a routine check of a transmission tower.

In a rugged area, we fly overhead to check over transmission lines. The helicopter gets the technicians in and out of difficult terrain," Danard said. "They were going in to make repairs and do maintenance."

She said B.C. Hydro has used the Cranbrook-based helicopter charter company, Bighorn, for years.

The last time B.C. Hydro had a similar incident was in 1973.

In a brief statement, Bighorn Helicopters said "it would not be appropriate ... to give interviews while this matter is being investigated."

Bighorn spokesman Murray Whyte said the company will assist the Transportation Safety Board "in every way possible" with the investigation.

"The management and staff of Bighorn Helicopters would like to offer their deepest sympathies and condolences to those involved in this tragic accident," he said.

Investigators will look at a number of factors in the crash, including whether the helicopter's tail rotor was working, said Yearwood. He said it's too early to confirm if this may have been a factor.

"If you don't have a tail rotor, the helicopter will want to spin out of control. Without it, you'll lose the ability to control where the helicopter is heading."

Unlike major commercial planes, helicopters are not required to have a black box or cockpit recorder, he said.

© Times Colonist (Victoria) 2008