All bodies recovered from Kobe Bryant copter crash site as investigation continues
Los Angeles – The bodies of Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter and seven others who died in a helicopter crash have been recovered from a Calabasas hillside, coroner officials said Tuesday.
Authorities on Sunday removed the bodies of at least three victims from the wreckage. Remains of the six remaining victims were located Monday, and their bodies have been taken to the Los Angeles County coroner’s forensic science center, where officials will work to identify them.
Authorities investigating Sunday’s accident said the impact of the crash was intense, shattering the chopper and sending debris over a wide area.
“This was a pretty devastating accident,” National Transportation Safety Board investigator Jennifer Homendy said. “There is an impact area on one of the hills, and a piece of the tail is down the hill on the left side of the hill. The fuselage is on the other side of that hill. Then the main rotor is about a hundred yards beyond that. The debris field is about 500 to 600 feet.”
The Calabasas hillside has become a pilgrimage point for thousands of tourists and fans of the NBA legend, prompting Los Angeles County sheriff’s officials to urge the public to stay away. Sheriff Alex Villanueva warned onlookers that it is a misdemeanor to enter the crash site and that those found in the area would face arrest. Deputies are patrolling the site on horseback and ATVs, he said.
Several individuals tried to get into the area Sunday after the deadly crash and were turned back by law enforcement.
“We had people trying to access the site on foot,” Villanueva said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had an inordinate amount of interest in accessing the crash site by unauthorized personnel.”
The investigation into the cause of the crash is still in its early stages. But Homendy provided new details Monday about the final moments of the flight, which was taking Bryant and his group from Orange County to his basketball camp in Thousand Oaks, where the retired NBA player was scheduled to coach a game in which Gianna was scheduled to play.
Accompanying the Bryants were John Altobelli, 56, longtime baseball coach at Orange Coast College; his wife, Keri, 46; their daughter, Alyssa, 13; Christina Mauser, 38, an assistant basketball coach at the Mamba Academy; Sarah Chester, 45; Chester’s daughter, Payton, 13; and the pilot, 50-year-old Ara Zobayan.
Just before crashing into the hillside, the pilot rapidly ascended to avoid a cloud layer, according to the NTSB.
The helicopter – a Sikorsky S-76 chopper built in 1991 – departed John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9:06 a.m. Sunday, according to publicly available flight records. The aircraft passed over Boyle Heights, near Dodger Stadium, and circled over Glendale during the flight. The NTSB database shows no prior incidents or accidents for the midsize helicopter.
Homendy said Zobayan requested special visual flight rules (VFR), which allow pilots to fly under 1,000 feet, during the trip to Ventura County because weather conditions had deteriorated to less than the minimum visibility for regular visual flying, according to recordings of radio communications between the air tower and the aircraft. At some point during the flight, the pilot requested “flight following,” a process in which controllers are in regular contact with an aircraft and can help them navigate.
Before the conversation ends, the tower is heard telling the pilot the helicopter is too low for flight following. Radar data indicate Zobayan, who had been a licensed commercial helicopter pilot for 19 years, guided the copter to 2,300 feet and then began a left turn. The helicopter then began rapidly descending.
A visual-flight-rules flight “is based on the principle of see and avoid.” When operation of an aircraft under visual flight rules isn’t safe, often because of inclement weather, a pilot can opt to fly under instrument rules (IFR). During this type of flight, the pilot navigates only by reference to the instruments in the cockpit, according to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Pilots “fly VFR when and if weather conditions allow, although they can choose to fly on an IFR flight plan at any time,” said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the FAA. “Also, it’s always up to the pilot to make the decision whether to fly VFR and to ensure the safety of the flight and adherence to federal aviation regulations.”
Homendy said it remained unclear what caused the helicopter to slam into the hillside. A team of federal investigators will continue to look at the history of the pilot, maintenance records for the aircraft, records of the owner and operator, and weather conditions during the flight.
As authorities worked to recover victims’ remains, a stream of visitors, Bryant fans and tourists came to the area, wanting to see the site for themselves. Some had cameras. A few had binoculars. Basketballs, candles, balloons, photos and various tributes lined a fence near the entrance to Juan Bautista de Anza Park in Calabasas.
The Laker star’s death struck Westlake Village resident Chad Martinson as doubly cruel. The 35-year-old father of two brought his 5-year-old daughter, Tatum, to the memorial, which he acknowledged was emotional.
“His death as a father hits me harder than him as a player,” Martinson said. “The second I heard it was Kobe in the helicopter, I knew where he was going, and the first thing that popped into my head was, I was hoping the girls wouldn’t be in the helicopter.
“It was devastating to hear that his daughter was with him.”