SMITHSBURG, Md. – Four people killed when their helicopter crashed on Interstate 70 were returning from an event where they had given helicopter rides to raise money for troubled youth, officials said.
National Transportation Safety Board member Kitty Higgins said the helicopter left Hagerstown at 10:15 p.m., about two hours after the event ended Thursday night. The pilot waited because of weather.
Witnesses saw the helicopter flying east over Interstate 70 when it hit power lines at about 10:30 p.m. and smashed into the eastbound lanes, Higgins said. They saw sparks before it hit the ground and burst into flames. No one on the ground was hurt. It wasn't clear if the craft was already on its way down when it hit the lines, which were about 70 feet off the ground.
"The witness basically saw a large arc at which point the helicopter crashed onto the interstate," said Washington County emergency services director Kevin Lewis. Before seeing the arc, the witness thought the helicopter might have been trying to land along the roadway.
The pilot and two others on board were employees of a flight instruction company called Advanced Helicopter Concepts. The fourth victim's husband said she had one the helicopter ride at the event. The cause is still unknown.
The aircraft was engulfed when firefighters arrived at the scene minutes after receiving a call at 10:30 p.m., Lewis said.
"The helicopter was completely engulfed in flames," Lewis said. "At one point there was some fuel spread from the helicopter that covered the interstate. So initially firefighters had to deal with a heavy amount of fire from the helicopter itself."
Frederick-based Advanced Helicopter Concepts instructor Gary Smith said Friday morning that the company had suffered a "huge loss."
"We thank everyone for their support and understanding during this difficult time," he said, declining to release further details. The company trains pilots, takes photographers on aerial tours and fixes and sells helicopters, according to its Web site.
The helicopter was making a flight for the Advanced Helicopter Youth Foundation, a NTSB spokeswoman said. According to the foundation's Web site, it was established by helicopter pilots in June "to raise funds and awareness for charities that operate on the front-lines helping America’s at-risk youth."
No children were on the flight when it crashed, the NTSB rep said. The victims were identified as 48-year-old Kim R. Felix, of New Market; 24-year-old Jeffrey D. Nordaas, of Columbia; 43-year-old Niall R. Y. Booth, of New Market; and 39-year-old George H. Tutor, of Westminster. Nordaas, the pilot, had 630 hours of flight experience.
Felix's husband said she won the helicopter ride at the fundraising event.
Booth's family said Friday that he was a native of Dorking, England, and moved to the U.S. in the 1990s with his American wife. He lived in Colorado Spring, Colo., before moving to Maryland.
Visibility was somewhat limited by fog at the time of the crash, but it wasn't clear if weather played a role, Lewis said. Storms had passed through the area earlier in the night.
Troopers temporarily shut down lanes in both directions at the crash site near Smithsburg, which is about 10 miles east of Hagerstown, and Lewis said there were downed power lines in the interstate. The highway was reopened early Friday.
Wreckage could be seen just off the shoulder of the three eastbound lanes. A blade jutted out from twisted metal. The wreckage is almost directly beneath a set of power lines.
The helicopter fell into a "static" power cable that's essentially a lightning rod for the power poles, said Allegheny Power spokesman Todd Meyers. Two other live wires were damaged in the crash, knocking out power to about 700 customers for about two hours after the crash.
Federal Aviation Administration records list the owner of the four-seat Robinson R44 helicopter as Marsan Aviation Inc., of Wilmington, Del.
Maryland State police, who are in charge of the investigation, declined to release the victims' names until family members were notified. Investigators from the NTSB and the FAA were also at the scene west of the Washington County-Frederick County line, on the western slope of a ridge known as South Mountain.
Frederick Municipal Airport Manager Kevin Daugherty said Friday morning he was shocked by news of the crash. Advanced Helicopter Concepts had been at the airport for well over 10 years and was a "top-notch operation," he said.
"They run a very safe, efficient operation. They're great tenants," Daugherty said. "We are obviously very distraught over this. We are all still in shock that this happened." He said he had spoken to employees of the company and that "they're grieving very much."
Maryland State police spokesman Greg Shipley said the bodies were being taken to the state medical examiner in Baltimore.