A helicopter taking aerial photographs of Baltimore-Washington International Airport crashed near a construction site yesterday afternoon, killing both people on board and turning a taxiway into a scene of twisted wreckage.
The aircraft, operated by Helicopter Transport Services, based at Martin State Airport, was carrying a photographer hired by BWI to take pictures of the construction area for the airport's new A terminal. It crashed just before 1 p.m., airport officials said.
FOR THE RECORD - A Page 1A article yesterday omitted the first name of the photographer killed in a helicopter crash at Baltimore-Washington International Airport. His name was Daniel James Breitenbach. The Sun regrets the error.
No other craft was involved, and no one on the ground was hurt.
Yesterday's crash was the first in the airport's 51-year history. The impact instantly killed the pilot, whom police identified as James Vincent Osterman, 37, of Davidsonville.
The photographer, James Breitenbach, 50, of Parkville, died a few hours later at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore, authorities said.
Witnesses near the scene off Friendship Road said the Bell JetRanger 206 helicopter seemed to drop out of the sky.
It hovered in one spot, the hum of its propeller barely audible above the construction din. Then it began spinning until it crashed onto Runway 15's taxiway and de-icing pad.
"It was turning and spinning and, oh my God, it was out of control," said Sister McNair-Bey, a construction worker who saw the helicopter about 150 feet above where she was standing.
McNair-Bey was close enough to see Breitenbach, his tan jacket wrapped around him, snapping photos of the site.
She then watched in horror as the craft went down.
Breitenbach, who sustained severe head injuries, was unconscious in the plane when rescue workers arrived.
Osterman, a 20-year firefighter with the Anne Arundel County Fire Department, was dead, his body partially hanging out the door, said John Norris, the airport's deputy fire chief.
Two electricians working at the construction site raced to the scene to see whether they could help. Taxi drivers at the depot next to Pier A also sped to the area when they heard the crash.
Though a chain link fence and several hundred yards separated them from the wreckage, some cab drivers said they saw the copter's rapid drop.
"He was flying over the area, and then the plane began spiraling all the way down and then BOOM!" said BWI taxi cab driver Dima Gorelik.
Emergency crews rushed to the scene about a minute after the crash and quickly spread foam on the ground around the site to neutralize leaking fuel.
Too close to the action
Laborer Ken Scilipote watched the aircraft's downward spiral from a precarious spot - a trench below the helicopter, where he and his crew were pulling out a piece of heavy equipment.
"All we were thinking was, everybody out of the hole. We just took off running," he said.
Amy Douglas, another worker on the site, said the helicopter flew between the current terminal and the new site without any problems, but then seemed to stop in one spot.
"He was hovering for a long time," she said, "and then all of a sudden the plane started spinning around in circles, and in a matter of no time it just hit the ground."
Since April, the Maryland Aviation Administration, which owns BWI, has been paying contractors to monitor the progress of its five-year, $1.8 billion expansion project and prepare publicity photos. The helicopter that crashed yesterday was part of that project.
Brian Rayner, air safety investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said yesterday that witnesses told investigators the pilot was making a series of turns before the crash.
Crushed and compressed
The 25-year-old craft, which took off from Martin State Airport in Middle River, looked more like a crumpled ball of maroon and gray foil surrounded by flickering emergency lights. The impact crushed its landing gear. All four doors were crunched, all windows smashed.
"Crushed and compressed from the bottom up," Rayner said of the damage.
Rayner said officials don't know the cause yet, but he said all the damage appears to be from impact. As the investigation continues, NTSB officials will test the helicopter's components, listen to the air traffic control tapes, and check maintenance records and the pilot's prior experience, Rayner said.
He added that the agency hopes to issue a preliminary report in a week.
Aviation authorities and friends mourned the loss of Breitenbach and Osterman, both well-known around the airport.
Breitenbach, a longtime free-lance photographer, was a frequent presence at the airport and did contract work for several state agencies, including the Port of Baltimore.
He also took aerial shots during the construction of Mercy Ridge, a continuing care retirement community in Timonium.
After reports that a helicopter had crashed, airport staff waited anxiously for more details, hoping that Breitenbach was not aboard the flight, according to John White, airport spokesman.
Pilot for a decade
Osterman, a pilot for 10 years, held a license to operate commercial helicopters. He honed his skills at the Frederick airport, said Kevin Kutz, his former brother-in-law.