Chopper in fatal crash had been diverted because of bad weather
Published 16/01/2013 | 08:39
TWO people died and several were injured today when a helicopter crashed in central London after the pilot attempted to divert due to bad weather.
The helicopter spun out of control and crash-landed after clipping a crane on top of one of Europe's tallest residential towers.
It fell from the sky before exploding into flames, plunging on to Wandsworth Road near Vauxhall station.
The owners of London Heliport at Battersea said they received a request via Heathrow air traffic control from pilot Pete Barnes asking to divert due to bad weather.
Police said the helicopter was on a scheduled flight from Redhill, Surrey, to Elstree, Hertfordshire.
The two people killed were Mr Barnes and someone on the ground, emergency services said.
Mr Barnes, who has piloted helicopters in action scenes in movies Die Another Day, Tomb Raider II and Saving Private Ryan, worked for flight operator RotorMotion.
Captain Philip Amadeus, managing director of RotorMotion, an executive helicopter charter business, said the aircraft was on a commercial flight from Redhill, in Surrey, to Elstree.
He said: "Our main priority now is for the family of the pilot and we extend our greatest sympathy to the friends and relatives of those who have died and been injured."
Firefighters rescued a man from a burning car and brought a blaze caused by the crash under control.
A spokesman for Aldersgate Investments, the company owned by the billionaire Reuben Brothers, which owns London Heliport, said: "Just before 8am today a helicopter crashed in central London close to Vauxhall Bridge.
"The helicopter involved in the accident was not destined for the London Heliport.
"However, we received a request from Heathrow air traffic control to accept the helicopter, which had asked to be diverted due to bad weather."
He added: "The London Heliport never gained contact with the helicopter."
The heliport will be closed for the rest of the day.
Addressing a press conference near the scene of the incident, Commander Neil Basu, of the Metropolitan Police, said: "I can confirm the pilot has been killed."
He added: "The helicopter was on a scheduled flight from Surrey. It was scheduled to fly from Redhill to Elstree but it was diverted."
He added: "It's possible it was diverted to another helipad."
Mr Basu said the police force were working with other agencies including the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) and the Civilian Aviation Authority.
Asked whether the lights on top of the building and crane were faulty, Mr Basu said: "That will form part of the investigation."
Mr Basu said: "It was something of a miracle that this was not many, many times worse."
Pauline Cranmer, operations manager at London Ambulance Service, said: "The second fatality was not in the building. It was in close proximity to the helicopter.
"We believe there was one person in the helicopter and that person has died."
Peter Cowup, assistant commissioner at London Fire Brigade, said: "One driver was able to get out of his own free will and leave the scene. He was injured but we understand he's fine."
He added: "Aircrafts and helicopters do contain hazardous materials. There is no reason for anyone to be afraid of hazardous materials in the air."
"Our operation is now focused on the tower crane. We're doing what we can to make that safe and working with specialist contractors to assess the damage sustained to the crane.
"In the meantime, we will have to maintain a cordon around it and ask people to stay away from the area."
He added: "Some people were evacuated. We will allow them back into their homes as soon as we can."
Asked about the stability of the crane, Mr Cowup said: "At the moment there's no imminent risk of that crane collapsing."
London Ambulance Service has confirmed six people were treated in hospital for injuries, including a broken leg, while seven other casualties were treated at the scene.
Local MP Kate Hoey described today's accident as a "terrible tragedy", which was awful for the families who lost loved ones, but also for people in the area who witnessed the crash.
Some residents had been moved out because the crane was not yet stable, she said.
She told BBC News: "We will need a real inquiry into increasing numbers of helicopters flying around London, coupled with the fact there are so many new tall buildings.
"Maybe people have become a little bit complacent - we'll have to look at that, but maybe that's for another day."
She said that if the helicopter had not come down in the road but had hit the large apartment buildings nearby, the situation would have been a major catastrophic event.
There would always be a need for some helicopters, such as police aircraft, she said.
But she added: "I think maybe we've come to take it almost for granted people have the right to take their helicopter over London at any time and we may have to look at that.
"It's clear there has been something terribly wrong happened this morning, but that doesn't mean we can't look at the wider issue at some future stage."
A photograph taken by the London Fire Brigade shows the damage caused to the VW car which was hit by debris from the helicopter.
The front and side windows were smashed, the passenger door was open and the vehicle was badly charred.
A section of twisted metal from the helicopter lay next to the vehicle.
London Fire Brigade said in an updated statement: "Six fire engines, four fire rescue units, a number of other specialist vehicles, 88 firefighters and officers are attending a helicopter crash near Wandsworth Road in Vauxhall. Firefighters have now brought the fire under control.
"The police have confirmed that two people have died at the scene. Fire crews have rescued a man from a burning car. London Ambulance Service took six people to hospital and treated seven people at the scene.
"Fifty-seven firefighters and officers are also attending a crane which has been left in a precarious position at Saint George's Wharf as a result of the helicopter crash. Four fire engines and two fire rescue units are in attendance.
"The brigade's fire boat is carrying out a precautionary search of the river."
Cloud in central London was very low at the time of the accident, which happened at around 8am, weather forecasters said. The top of the building would have been shrouded in cloud.
London Fire Brigade station manager Bruce Grain, one of first firefighters at the scene, said it "was absolute chaos" but he revealed the fire was put out within 20 minutes.
Eight fire engines, four fire rescue units and around 60 firefighters plus officers attended the scene of the crash, a few hundred yards from MI6, on a busy road.
Four fire engines and two fire rescue units also attended reports of a crane in a precarious position. The brigade was called at 8am.
The crane was on top of a building called The Tower in the St George Wharf development.
A spokesman for Berkeley Group, which owns St George, the development company for the building, said in a statement: "Our thoughts at this time are with the friends and families of those killed in this tragic incident."
There was traffic chaos in the wake of the incident, with Vauxhall Bridge Road southbound closed, Wandsworth Road partially closed, Nine Elms Lane partially closed and South Lambeth Road partially closed.
Vauxhall Tube, railway and bus stations were also closed.
Video footage shot on a mobile phone showed an entire road blocked by burning wreckage and aviation fuel. The side of a building on one side of the street was also damaged by the flames.
Passers-by stood watching as the wreckage burned. A motorcycle was seen lying on its side in the road where it was abandoned.
Witness Nic Walker said the helicopter crashed on to the street outside his house, setting a car on fire.
He said: "I was awake in bed and heard a helicopter. I was aware of some funny sounds and then a loud engine noise, then a huge bang. I flung open my window and looked out to see fire across the street."
He added: "The crane operator was about to go up. The scaffolders evacuated to here told me there isn't a crane big enough in the UK to get the wreckage down."
Stephen Swan, who lives in St George Wharf, said when he heard the collision that he thought the nearby MI6 building had been attacked.
"We heard a big crash, the bang, and then we got up and went out on the balcony. We thought something terrible had happened at MI6, it was scary," he said.
"I'd just watched the film Skyfall not so long ago, and seeing that place (MI6) pretend blown up I thought 'Oh my God, what's going on?'."
The aircraft is understood to be an AgustaWestland AW109, a lightweight, twin-engine helicopter with eight seats.
One person was taken to a south London hospital in a critical condition, three people suffering minor injuries were taken to south London hospitals and five people were treated at the scene for minor injuries.
A spokesman for the RNLI said London Coastguard was contacted by Battersea London Heliport, which confirmed it had lost contact with an aircraft.
A lifeboat was launched from the Tower RNLI lifeboat station to search the Thames but was later stood down.
The Civil Aviation Authority said helicopter regulations for flying over London included "requirements for lighting on tall structures".
The authority added: "In addition, where appropriate, very tall structures are also notified to pilots for flight planning purposes, as was the case with the crane that was involved in this morning's accident."
Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe told the London Assembly: "Two people have been confirmed dead. One of those has been identified as the pilot of the helicopter."
The second fatality has yet to be identified, he said.
He did not name the deceased.
He said 60 officers were at the scene and there were extensive road closures in place.
It is understood that there were lights in place on top of the crane, which were checked twice a day and had been checked yesterday.
There had been confusion over whether the lights had been functioning correctly, but it looks increasingly likely that they were obscured by the thick mist shrouding the tower.
Eyewitness and mother-of-five Sharon Moore, who lives on the nearby Wyvil Estate, said: "Usually I can see a red light on top of the cabin but today you couldn't see anything.
"I think it was because the building was covered by fog.
"Sometimes that happens all day and you wonder how they (aircraft) are meant to see."