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Los Angeles Helicopter Crash Kills Two

A Los Angeles helicopter crash, which was witnessed by cruise ship passengers, has killed two people. The crash, which occurred on January 4, 2017, involved a black Robinson R22 helicopter, which plunged into the water at the Port of Los Angeles. Both people on board were killed in the helicopter crash. The Los Angeles Port Police and the U.S. Coast Guard were called in to locate the downed helicopter and its victims, a process that took hours.

Helicopter Took Off from Zamperini Field

According to reports, the Robinson helicopter, registered to JJ Helicopters Inc., took off from Zamperini Field in Torrance on the evening of January 4, and was conducting an aerial photo shoot when it crashed. At the time of the crash, the helicopter was carrying a pilot and one passenger, both males. Passengers aboard a cruise ship that was leaving the harbor witnessed the helicopter crash at around 5:45 p.m. on January 4 and phoned authorities.

Other witnesses also called 911 to notify response teams of the accident.

News reports indicate that one of the victims is Michael Justice, who previously worked as a news photographer and was working under an assignment for the Port of Los Angeles taking photos of cruise ships in port. Prior to the accident, Justice took photos for National Geographic and flew with the Blue Angels.

Casey Warren, who worked with Michael Justice on some projects, told ABC7 that the photo shoot was only supposed to take an hour.

"I was supposed to be on the craft with him, and I got booted because the R44 we wanted wasn't available, so he went up in a 22 and it only seats one," Warren said. "He never came home."

"It's just so shocking because he was so full of life," Joe Robinson, friend of Michael Justice, told KTLA. "He was one of the greatest photographers in the world. I worked with him on a story we did together in Zimbabwe; just a great fun guy. Somebody who was a friend to everybody."

At a press conference, authorities stated that they believe pilot Christopher Reed was the other victim.

Search for Downed R22 Helicopter Took Hours 

Despite several witnesses to the crash and reports that the helicopter hit the water near the Angels Gate Lighthouse, it took crews until Thursday morning to locate the wreckage, due to low visibility linked to wet weather. Along with the U.S. Coast Guard and the Los Angeles Port Police, crews from local fire departments took part in the search, with some rescuers hopeful of finding survivors. Underwater devices were also used, but when the wreckage was discovered at 11:00 a.m. on Thursday morning, both victims had died.

A recovery mission was then launched to surface the helicopter and the bodies from beneath 15 to 20 feet of water. On the afternoon of January 5, the fuselage of the wreckage was raised by Port police.

Second Robinson Helicopter Crash in California in a Week 

This helicopter accident was the second helicopter crash involving a Robinson helicopter in California within a week. On December 29, 2016, four people who were aboard a Robinson R44 helicopter had to be rescued after the helicopter experienced a hard landing on Mount Baldy. Although one of the injured was flown to a trauma center, all four appeared to have injuries that were not life-threatening.

The helicopter was based in Fullerton and was chartered to a group who wanted to record video. It is not yet clear what caused the hard landing, although a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) representative was airlifted to the scene to begin an investigation.

An unnamed passenger on the helicopter said they came down fast on landing and the pilot used an expletive moments before landing. Reports indicate the helicopter suffered extensive damage to the tail section and rotor. 

"From what I understand it was a pretty hard landing," said Doug Nelson, Battalion Chief with the San Bernardino County Fire Department. "They're very lucky it was on top of the ridge and not to the side of the ridge."

Rescue crews were notified of the incident by a hiker who witnessed the helicopter crash.

Robinson Helicopters on New Zealand Watch List 

Following multiple fatal accidents, Robinson Helicopters has been added to New Zealand's "most pressing concerns" watchlist. The country's Transport Accident Investigation Commission added Robinson Helicopters to the list due to concerns of "mast bumping" accidents, which have resulted in 18 deaths in 20 years. Furthermore, the commission noted that four of its own recommendations to decrease accidents had not been implemented by Robinson Helicopters, raising concerns about possible future accidents.

Mast bumping accidents are frequently fatal for the people on board because they typically cause the helicopter to break up while in flight. These catastrophic accidents occur when the inner part of a main rotor blade contacts the main rotor drive shaft. Situations that involve turbulence, mountainous terrain and strong winds can increase the risk of a mast bump.

Colleagues Mourn Michael Justice 

Robinson Helicopter's CEO, Kurt Robinson, told the Press-Telegram that the company was cooperating with officials who were investigating the Port of Los Angeles helicopter crash. The helicopter involved in the crash was built in 2005.

People who worked with Justice said they were heartbroken over his death. Justice had worked for the port for between three and four years, and also provided photography services to Los Angeles International Airport.

"He's taken the most stunning photographs for the port and was a joy to work with," said Port spokesman Phillip Sanfield. "There's a sense of grief and loss here."

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