Helicopter Strikes Crane in Central London and Crashes in Flames

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Oli Scarff / Getty Images

Emergency services at the scene after a helicopter reportedly collided with a crane attached to St Georges Wharf Tower in Vauxhall, on January 16, 2013 in London, England.

Wednesday morning rush hour in central London, and millions of people flooded the streets en route to work, braving unusually cold temperatures and pervasive fog. But the rush ground to a halt around 8 a.m. in the neighborhood of Vauxhall, southwest London, when a helicopter crashed into a crane and tumbled to the ground in a fiery pile of debris.

The crane was perched atop The Tower, a 51-story luxury apartment building in the St. George’s Wharf development under construction as one of Europe’s tallest residential developments. After the copter struck the crane, it fell 700 feet to the ground.

Two people were pronounced dead in the crash, and at least 13 were injured, according to the London Ambulance Service. One of the fatalities was the helicopter’s pilot, identified as 50-year-old Pete Barnes, who worked for helicopter charter company Rotormotion. Barnes was reportedly a vastly experienced pilot who had logged in excess of 10,000 flying hours and had helped operate helicopters in many films such as Die Another Day, Saving Private Ryan and Tomb Raider II.

The second person who died was reported to be a bystander, though police hadn’t yet released details. Flames were seen shooting from the roadway after leaking helicopter fuel ignited, torching cars and scattering debris. Many looked on as black smoke billowed from the crash site. Eyewitnesses noted that the helicopter “cartwheeled” to the ground after hitting the crane.

Six people were taken to nearby hospitals, one with broken leg and the others suffering from minor injuries. Seven people were treated at the scene. Eighty firefighters rushed to the scene to extinguish the ensuing blaze as cars and two buildings caught fire after the burning wreckage landed on Wandsworth Road in South Lambeth. Rescuers pulled three people from two burning cars, according to CNN.

Given the time and proximity of the crash to Vauxhall Station, a major London commuting hub, Metropolitan Police Commander Neil Basu said it was “miraculous” the crash wasn’t more severe. The Vauxhall area is a blend of business and residential buildings, not far from the new headquarters of MI6, the British intelligence service. Any terrorism connection to the incident was quickly ruled out.

The copter had taken off half an hour earlier from Redhill Aerodrome in Surrey, 20 miles south of London. Barnes was en route to Elstree, 15 miles northeast of London, but had requested permission to land at the nearby Battersea heliport due to bad weather, Sky News reported. Witnesses reported low clouds in the Vauxhall area, leading many to speculate that Barnes may not have been able to see the crane at the time. BBC reports that the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) had issued a warning about the crane last October, and reiterated it on Jan. 7. A spokeswoman for Berkeley Homes, the firm in charge of the development, wouldn’t discuss with the BBC whether a light on the crane, which is supposed to be on in order to warn pilots, was on Wednesday morning.

The tragic events have been the biggest story of the day in Britain, with Prime Minister David Cameron asked about the incident at Prime Minister’s Questions (both Cameron and Labour leader Ed Miliband paid tribute to the emergency services). Kate Hoey, the Labour MP for the Vauxhall area of South London, asked Cameron for a review of the rules on helicopters flying over central London. Cameron replied that, “inevitably it’s something that has to be carefully looked at.”