A Seattle TV helicopter trying to take off next to the Space Needle crashed onto a car and exploded Tuesday, killing a cameraman and the pilot as the popular observation tower was shrouded in a large plume of dark smoke, KING5.com reported.
A third person, a 37-year-old man, managed to pull himself out of his burning car. He was hospitalized in serious condition with second-degree burns over 20% of his body.
The bodies of the two victims, including award-winning former KOMO News photographer Bill Strothman, were found in the wreckage.
KOMO-TV, whose studios are located at the site, confirmed that it owns the helicopter, a Eurostar AS350-B2. The station said the 11-year-old aircraft was a loaner while the regular chopper was undergoing maintenance.
Witness described hearing a "whining" or "unusual" noise coming from the single-engine helicopter as it rose, said Dennis Hogenson, acting deputy chief of the National Transportation Safety Board's Western Pacific Region.
One witness, Brian Cruz, told KOMO that it looked as if the chopper "got hung up on some cables" as it was taking off about 7:40 a.m. PT and tumbled onto three vehicles on Broad Street.
"It just blew up instantly," Chris McColgan, another witness, who was stopped at a nearby light, told The Seattle Times.
Television station employees rushed to the window at the sound of the crash, then to the crash site KOMO reported.
The fire engulfed another car and a pickup truck, but both drivers escaped injury.
"Not only were the cars on fire, the fuel running down the street was on fire," said fire department spokesman Kyle Moore.
Firefighters prevented the burning fuel from pouring into the sewer.
The helicopter had refueled after a trip earlier in the morning and was heading to Renton, Wash., when it crashed.
The chopper was used in a partnership with KING5, which is owned by Gannett, the parent company of USA TODAY.
The 62-year-old Strothman won 13 Emmys while working for KOMO from 1979 until 2008, when he left to freelance for Helicopters Inc., a news-gathering service. His son is a KOMO photographer. The pilot was identified as 59-year-old Gary Pfitzner.
"We all know (Strothman) as one of the best storytellers to have ever graced the halls of KOMO," said news anchor and reporter Molly Shen. "It felt like a loss for us because he knows his craft so well, and he's such an artist and such a great journalist."
On air, KOMO-TV anchor Dan Lewis said, "We mourn the loss of a couple of our co-workers today."
"It's so difficult for us to look at this scene, of the wreckage down there," he said.
The scene is half a block outside the main entrance to Seattle's iconic Space Needle, the tower and restaurant built for 1962 World's Fair. Next to it is the Pacific Science Center, a children's science museum that is a frequent destination of travelers.
Visitors on Seattle' monorail zip one block away, along 5th Avenue, where they have a view of the KOMO television building just before turning into the grounds of the Seattle Center. The building's roof is the site of the helicopter's landing pad.
KIRO-TV said after the crash that it had grounded its helicopter, pending flight-safety review.
Other cities have experienced helicopter crashes as TV stations rush to cover the news from above major cities.
Two news helicopters collided in midair in Phoenix in 2007 as the aircraft covered a police chase, sending fiery wreckage plummeting onto a park. Four people in the helicopters were killed.
The crash prompted changes at the stations in how they operated their helicopter crews.
Contributing: Elizabeth Weise and Michael Winter; The Associated Press