NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. — A helicopter that crashed in Southern California, killing three people on board, didn’t send a distress call before plummeting into a home in a gated community, a federal investigator said Wednesday.
The Robinson R44 helicopter was headed to Catalina Island when it went down in Newport Beach soon after taking off from nearby John Wayne Airport, said Joshua Cawthra, an investigator with the National Transportation Safety Board.
The cause of the crash was unknown and could take months to determine. After the crash, the helicopter’s crushed metal sat in a heap on the side of the house, its tail rotor sticking out of the roof of a nearby home. A 6-foot chunk of the aircraft had landed in the street in front of another house.
Audrey Ellis said her neighbors told her they were in the kitchen when the helicopter hit the bedroom of their house. They were not injured.
“All of a sudden the house just shook and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’re having an earthquake,'” said another nearby resident Marian Michaels.
The three people killed in the crash included the pilot and two passengers, Cawthra said. They were identified as 60-year-old Joseph Tena of Newport Beach, 45-year-old Kim Watzman of Santa Monica, and 56-year-old Brian Reichelt of Hollywood, Florida.
Watzman and Reichelt were both longtime employees at The Standard, a trendy national hotel chain, the company said in a statement.
Watzman had been at the company for 11 years and was the general manager of The Standard’s location in Hollywood. Reichelt was with the company for more than six years as a regional director of finance at The Standard in Miami.
“We are heartbroken by the tragic loss of our friends” Amar Lalvani, CEO of Standard International, said in a statement. “Our focus now is on supporting their loved ones and our team during this difficult time.”
The third victim, Tena, was the only one on board who had a pilot’s license.
Revolution Aviation, which operated the helicopter out of John Wayne Airport, did not immediately confirm that Tena was flying the aircraft.
“We are heartbroken,” said the company’s CEO, Mark Robinson.
David Henry, who lives a couple houses away from the crash site, said he heard the helicopter coming down and knew what it was because he crashed in three separate choppers when he served in Vietnam.
Henry was among those who initially tried to pull victims from the crash but thought better of it.
“They were just jammed in there like sardines,” Henry said. “We were pulling back the aluminum and we said, ‘We’d have to pull them up out of there’ and we could hear the paramedics coming.
“So we said, ‘We’re not going to touch them,'” he said. “We were afraid of hurting them worse.”
Revolution Aviation offers helicopter and airplane classes, the use of aircraft for photography and video production, as well as sightseeing flights.
Cawthra said the helicopter was on a personal flight when it crashed.
Eric Spitzer of Spitzer Helicopter, the owner of the aircraft, said he had leased the R44 to Revolution Aviation since April 2016.
He said the helicopter had just gotten updated equipment a week ago, though he didn’t have further details.
“Somebody called me and asked about the crash and I was like, ‘Oh my God,'” he said. “It was a nice helicopter, very well-maintained.”