HONOLULU (AP) — Federal officials are investigating the fiery crash of a tour helicopter that slammed into a mountain ridge on Hawaii’s Molokai island, killing the pilot and the four tourists aboard.
The aircraft carrying the five people was on a tourist excursion of West Maui and Molokai when it went down near an elementary school Thursday, authorities said.
Firefighters recovered four bodies and the fifth was located under the wreckage, Maui County spokesman Rod Antone said.
The crash occurred about a quarter mile from Kilohana Elementary School, prompting teachers to keep the 71 students inside, Principal Richard Stevens said.
“We didn’t go on lockdown,” he said. “The kids were never in any immediate danger.”
Maui police official Wayne K. Ibarra also confirmed the five deaths. There was no word on the cause of the crash but he said the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board were investigating.
Blue Hawaiian Helicopters owner David Chevalier said the passengers were two men and two women taking a 45-minute tour that departed from Kahului, on Maui.
He declined to release the pilot’s name because his wife had not yet been notified.
“We’re extremely grieved for our pilot as well as the passengers,” Chevalier said. “Something like this can’t be more devastating to us.”
Antone told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that the passengers were from Pennsylvania and Ontario, Canada. Maui County didn’t immediately return a phone call from The Associated Press seeking confirmation.
The passengers from Pennsylvania were reportedly newlyweds, the newspaper reported.
The Maui Visitors Bureau was helping families of the victims, and the Maui Police Department’s chaplain was on site, county officials said.
The EC-130 chopper that crashed was less than a year old and was being leased from Nevada Helicopter Leasing LLC, Chevalier said.
Stevens said a school health aide saw the helicopter hit the hillside in the mountains above the campus, and there was a large boom.
“We just had a heavy downpour,” Stevens said. “You could see smoke coming up, even though it was very cloudy.”
The helicopter was engulfed in flames, said Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Ian Gregor. From the school, its yellow tail could be seen pointing up from the ground.
The crash caused a brush fire but flames didn’t spread beyond the crash site, fire officials said.
The campus was used as a staging area for emergency workers.
Molokai is a mostly rural island of about 7,000 people between Maui and Oahu, where world leaders have gathered this week for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Honolulu. Antone told the Star-Advertiser that initial indications were none of the four passengers was in Hawaii to attend the summit.
Helicopter tour companies advertise trips to Molokai to see the island’s sea cliffs and Hawaii’s tallest waterfall. The remote Kalaupapa peninsula on Molokai is where Hawaii exiled leprosy patients between 1866 and 1969.
Blue Hawaiian conducts 160,000 tours each year on all of the Hawaiian islands, Chevalier said.
A Blue Hawaiian helicopter was previously involved in a July 2000 crash that killed seven people on Maui. Pilot Larry Kirsch, 55, and six passengers died when the twin-engine AS-355 crashed into a steep mountainside deep in Maui’s Iao Valley.
A National Transportation Safety Board report on that crash said the pilot was responsible. He failed to maintain enough altitude over the terrain amid low-lying clouds, and the helicopter slammed into the side of a ridge in the valley, the report said.
There have been other tour helicopter crashes in the islands over the years.
In March 2007, four people died when a Heli-USA Airways helicopter crashed at Princeville Airport on Kauai.
Three passengers drowned in 2005 after a helicopter crashed into the ocean off the coast of Kauai. The previous year, five people were killed when a helicopter crashed into a mountain on Kauai.
(Copyright 2011 The Associated Press.)