A helicopter crashed near the River Thames in central London after striking a crane mounted on one of Europe’s tallest residences following a diversion in poor weather. The pilot and one person on the ground were killed.
The AgustaWestland AW109 model came down at about 8 a.m. near Wandsworth Road in Nine Elms, south of the Thames and close to the site of the new U.S. Embassy. Blazing wreckage spread across the street near bus stops and a J Sainsbury Plc store.
The helicopter crashed after colliding with a crane at the luxury St George Wharf development, homebuilder Berkeley Group Holdings Plc said in a statement. Television images showed damage to equipment attached to The Tower, a 594-foot housing block, the top of which was shrouded in mist. Police are investigating whether the crane’s warning lights were on.
“There was a big boom when the helicopter hit the crane, with bits and pieces dropping on the pavement, then another boom when it crashed on the ground down the road,” said truck driver Ray Watts, who had been returning to a vehicle parked at the tower’s security gate when the accident happened.
Confirmed dead at the scene were pilot Peter Barnes, the only person onboard, and a person on the ground, with at least 11 others injured, one critically, the Metropolitan Police said. London Fire Brigade said one man was rescued from a burning car.
The helicopter had departed from Redhill Aerodrome, south of the city, for Elstree in the west, and sought a diversion to London Heliport in Battersea, two miles from the crash site, because of “poor weather,” Phil Wright, senior air traffic controller at Redhill, said in an interview.
London Heliport received a request from controllers at Heathrow airport to accept the flight, but never made contact with Barnes, it said in e-mailed comments.
Redhill, about six minutes flying time from Battersea, is the main base for RotorMotion, the helicopter’s operator. Passengers flown by the charter company include British Prime Minister David Cameron, singer Elton John and the Dalai Lama. The AW109, built by Finmeccanica SpA’s AgustaWestland unit, is a twin-engine helicopter that can carry seven people plus a pilot.
“It was horrendous,” construction worker Paddy Evans said at the scene of the crash. “I was on scaffolding across the road. Visibility was low. We heard a bang and the helicopter came spiraling down.” Steve Stewart, a builder from Liverpool, said that “chaos” ensued after the accident.
Britain’s Air Accidents Investigation Branch has sent a team to the site, the organization said on its twitter feed. The crane’s lights are checked twice daily and were working yesterday, a spokesman for Cobham, England-based Berkeley said.
Pilot Barnes, 50, began flying for RotorMotion in 1997 and was one of the company’s most experienced staff with more than 9,000 hours of flight-time logged, including 3,500 hours aboard AgustaWestland helicopters, spokesman Paul Blezard said.
In 18 years of flying he also worked as an air-ambulance pilot and was involved in the production of movies including “Tomb Raider II” and “Die Another Day” in the James Bond series.
The crash was close to the Vauxhall road, rail and subway interchange, which closed in the aftermath, and within a mile of the headquarters of MI6, Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service.
Six fire engines, four rescue units and 88 firefighters attended the scene, London Fire Brigade said, with a further 57 crew and six vehicles dealing with the crane, which was “left in a precarious position” as a result of the impact.
A number of roads have also been shut in the area. Two office buildings were damaged by debris, as well as five cars and two motorbikes, according to the fire department.
Deadly aircraft accidents and fatalities fell to an all-time low last year, air safety researcher Ascend Aviation Insight said in a December report.