A Tennessee helicopter crash killed five people on Monday afternoon. The fatal crash was reported at around 3:30 p.m. in the town of Pigeon Forge, which is perhaps best known for being the home of Dollywood theme park on the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Local law enforcement officials said the Bell 206L helicopter crashed in a wooded area along a hillside, not far from a large outlet mall and some residences. Video footage of the Tennessee helicopter crash shows the chopper catching fire almost immediately after impact, sparking a blaze that firefighters were finally able to put out on Tuesday.
Shawn Matern was at his parents' home when he heard the helicopter crash. He told reporters that when he came outside, he saw an explosion. That's when someone aboard the chopper rolled out onto the ground and was "burning alive." One of the neighbors ran out to assist the victim, but there was nothing that could be done. Matern told a local news affiliate the person "died right in front of me."
Wilma Law, another area resident, was on her back porch when she heard a puttering noise coming from the Bell 206 rotor that "didn't sound right." She then watched the tail section of the chopper fall below the tree line and heard a big explosion.
Pigeon Forge Police Chief Jack H. Baldwin told the media that there was little left of the Bell 206 in the wake of the Tennessee helicopter crash. Baldwin said a little piece of the tail fin remained, but the rest of the helicopter was destroyed by the post-crash fire.
The fact that the Bell 206 was all but destroyed by fire makes investigating the Tennessee helicopter crash a bit more complicated, according to National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) senior investigator Luke Schiada. The NTSB is the agency in charge of the crash investigation.
Victims of Tennessee Helicopter Crash Identified
The Pigeon Forge Police Department identified the victims of the Tennessee helicopter crash on Tuesday as 38-year-old pilot Jason Dahl of Sevierville, Tennessee; 49-year-old passenger Johna Morvant of Kodak, Tennessee; 22-year-old Peyton Rasmussen of Huntersville, North Carolina; 21-year-old Michael Glenn Mastalez of Prosper, Texas; and 18-year-old Parker Rasmussen, also from Huntersville.
Scott Rasmussen told the media that his daughter, Peyton, and son, Parker, were in Tennessee visiting their mother, Johna Morvant. According to Rasmussen, Mastalez was Peyton's boyfriend.
Tessa Ashford, the girlfriend of deceased pilot Jason Dahl, said even though news of the crash has been emotional for her, Dahl died doing what he loved. Originally from Oregon, the two moved across the country so that Dahl could pursue his passion for flying. Much like the loved ones of the other crash victims, Ashford is awaiting the findings from the NTSB's investigation to learn what may have caused this tragedy. Dahl, she said, was a great pilot who had earned the respect of his colleagues.
What May Have Caused the Tennessee Helicopter Crash?
At this early stage in the investigation, the NTSB has not commented on what may have caused the sightseeing Tennessee helicopter crash. The agency will be looking at a number of issues in its investigation, including weather conditions at the time of the crash, maintenance records of the Bell 206, how the chopper was loaded, and Dahl's pilot record. It is hoped that the NTSB will also investigate the reasons why the fire broke out, and make recommendations to require tour helicopters be equipped with fuel systems that do not erupt in low level crashes.
According to the Associated Press, the sightseeing Bell 206 helicopter is owned by Smoky Mountain Helicopters. Records show that it was built in 1977. Based on where the crash occurred, investigators have said the sightseeing helicopter was in the midst of a 12-minute tour when it went down. The chopper was making its second flight of the day.
Monday's Tennessee helicopter crash is one of a growing number of accidents involving sightseeing helicopters in recent years. Aviation attorney Ron Goldman, who has represented victims in more than 30 helicopter crashes, believes that sightseeing helicopters pose "a greater risk than I like."
Goldman told WSMV that while a number of the sightseeing helicopter crashes he has investigated involved bad weather, maintenance issues or pilot error, one particular problem stands out:
"In several of our sightseeing helicopter cases, we have found that in an effort to give the passengers a more exciting ride, risks were taken that probably shouldn't have been. And they get themselves into problems with tricky winds or other issues they can't recover from."
As far as the Bell 206, Goldman has handled cases where design and maintenance issues played roles in crashes. In helicopter crash cases, Goldman concerns himself not only with why the helicopter crashed, but why the crash victims had to die, and especially why they had to suffer the horror of being burned alive.
Another concern is sightseeing helicopter pilots doubling as tour guides, which Goldman believes can be dangerous. He has urged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make sure that tourist helicopter pilots are not taking unnecessary risks and showing off for passengers mid-flight.
In an interview with WBIR, Goldman said sightseeing helicopters need better oversight. "In my opinion, the risk is too great and the regulations are not very strict. There's a lot that needs to be done."
The NTSB is expected to release a preliminary report on the Tennessee helicopter crash within the next couple of weeks. A final report will likely take around a year to complete.