Inquiry into Kobe Bryant helicopter crash to focus on weather

Identities of seven others who died on flight with ex-NBA star and daughter (13) emerge

People gather at a vigil outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday to remember  basketball player Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday. Photograph: Philip Cheung/The New York Times.

People gather at a vigil outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Monday to remember basketball player Kobe Bryant, who died in a helicopter crash on Sunday. Photograph: Philip Cheung/The New York Times.

 

The investigation into the helicopter crash that killed Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others on Sunday will involve the FBI and focus primarily on weather conditions and potential mechanical issues.

Overcast skies and fog had grounded other aircraft at the time the Sikorsky S-76 crashed into a steep hillside outside the town of Calabasas, California.

The deaths of Bryant (41) and his daughter Gianna (13) were confirmed by the National Basketball Association (NBA) and followed by expressions of disbelief and grief from fans, fellow athletes and politicians.

Bryant and his entourage were reported to have been on their way at the time to a sports academy in the nearby city of Thousand Oaks, where he was to have coached his daughter’s basketball team in a youth tournament.

Investigators from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board have opened separate inquiries into the crash. It is standard practice for the FBI to assist the FAA in crash investigations.

A recovery effort at the crash site is expected to take several days and a 5-mile no-fly zone was set up around the scene.

Bryant’s helicopter was built in 1991 and had no other incident reports on file with either organisation. Aviation officials told the Los Angeles Times a twin-engine failure in the S-76B was highly unlikely.

Limited visibility

Among the factors expected to be at the forefront of the investigations are the weather conditions, given that forecasters reported low clouds and limited visibility in the vicinity at the time of the crash, and various eyewitnesses recounted thick fog over the foothills where the helicopter went down.

Fog in the area was so bad on Sunday that both the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department grounded their helicopter fleets, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing officials.

“The weather situation did not meet our minimum standards for flying,” a Los Angeles police spokesman Josh Rubenstein said.

A file photograph of Kobe Bryant during his playing days with the Los Angeles Lakers. File photograph: Mark J. Terrill/AP.
A file photograph of Kobe Bryant during his playing days with the Los Angeles Lakers. File photograph: Mark J. Terrill/AP.

Bryant, who won five NBA championships in his 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, was known since his playing days to travel frequently by helicopter to avoid the Los Angeles area’s notorious traffic.

Several media outlets identified the pilot as Ara Zobayan, adding that he was qualified to fly in fog.

CNN reported that air traffic controllers on Sunday gave the pilot “Special Visual Flight Rules,” or special clearance to fly in less than optimal weather.

In addition, the pilot asked air traffic controllers for constant monitoring, or “flight following,” but was informed that he was flying too low, CNN said.

“Two echo x-ray, you’re still too low level for flight following at this time,” an air traffic controller told the pilot, possibly in meaning the chopper was too low to be seen on radar, CNN said, citing audio from the website LiveATC.net.

Teammate

Others aboard the ill-fated helicopter, in addition to the pilot, included a teammate from Bryant’s daughter’s basketball team, Alyssa Altobelli, and the girl’s parents John and Keri Altobelli.

John Altobelli was just about to start his 28th season as baseball coach at Orange Coast College, having won his fourth state championship just last year, the college said in a news release on his death.

The same statement identified Keri and Alyssa Altobelli as victims of the crash. The Altobellis are survived by two of Alyssa’s siblings, J.J. and Lexi.

Also killed on board was Christina Mauser, an assistant girls basketball coach at a private school in Orange County, Mayor Katrina Foley of Costa Mesa, California, said on Twitter.

Ms Mauser was married to Matt Mauser, singer with the rock band Tijuana Dogs, who mourned his wife in a statement posted on Facebook.

“My kids and I are devastated. We lost our beautiful wife and mom today in a helicopter crash. Please respect our privacy. Thank you for all the well wishes, they mean so much,” he wrote.

Sarah Chester and her middle-school-aged daughter Payton also were on board, according to a Facebook post by elementary school principal Todd Schmidt. - Reuters