Two people including pilot are killed when helicopter hits crane and spirals on to street below in Vauxhall
David Cameron has announced a review of rules governing flights over central London after two people were killed and 13 injured when a helicopter hit a construction crane in Vauxhall, showering metal on rush-hour commuters before exploding in a fireball.
The twin-engine private helicopter was stricken in low cloud and freezing temperatures above the construction site of the 51-storey Vauxhall Tower just before 8am, smashing into the top of the building’s main crane and shearing off the jib before spiralling on to Nine Elms Lane and bursting into flames.
The pilot, Captain Pete Barnes, died at the scene along with one other person who was not in the helicopter and has not been named. Barnes, 50, from Mortimer, Berkshire, was flying from Redhill, Surrey, to Elstree, Hertfordshire, to pick up a client and had radioed air traffic control for a change of route after hitting bad weather. He was hoping to land at London heliport in Battersea.
It is not known if he even saw the new 235-metre (770ft) crane, which was in and out of low cloud throughout the morning. National Air Traffic Control issued a warning to airmen about the crane last week. Witnesses reported that the top of the crane was shrouded in cloud and the helicopter appeared to swerve at the last minute to try to avoid it.
As shocked construction workers at the foot of the tower told of panic among commuters who scrambled to avoid falling debris as the helicopter came down, the Air Accidents Investigation Branch launched an immediate inquiry into what is thought to be the first fatal helicopter crash in central London. The prime minister told MPs: “The rules for helicopter flights and other flights over our capital city will be looked at as part of the investigations.” The inquiry will examine the helicopter’s route, the warning light system on the crane and building, the role of bad weather, and the possibility of mechanical or pilot error.
Barnes’s colleagues at RotorMotion, the “boutique helicopter charter business” that operated the aircraft, said they were devastated at his death and described him as one of the most highly skilled and highly qualified helicopter pilots in the UK.
Injuries to survivors included burns, cuts and bruises, and in one case a broken leg. Six people were taken to hospital and others were treated at the scene. Many witnesses said they had feared it was a terrorist attack, given the proximity of MI6 headquarters, and the emergency services responded within minutes with more than 60 police officers cordoning off the area, 88 firefighters tackling the helicopter blaze and 57 trying to secure the tangled crane.
“There was a big bang when the helicopter hit the boom of the crane and there was another when it hit the ground and blew up,” said Ray Watts, 45, a lorry driver who was delivering boards to the tower when the crash happened. “I just ran. I was scared and legged it. I didn’t know which way to run because there were bits everywhere. I ran towards the station and there were still bits raining down. You come to work on a normal Wednesday morning and you don’t expect this.”
Watts’s truck was hit by the falling crane but he had stepped out to greet a security guard.
“We looked up and a helicopter came out of the mist,” said another worker. “It seemed like it was going to miss the thing but then the rotors seemed to hit it. It then dipped a bit, then smashed right into the crane and cut the cab in half. The cab went backwards and started going down towards the floor, and the helicopter was pouring smoke and went on about a mile … it came down, a great fireball went up – lots of smoke.”
Metropolitan police commander Neil Basu said: “It was something of a miracle that this was not many, many times worse.” Witnesses described the crane crashing to the ground in front of cars that had stopped at a red light. There were unconfirmed reports that the crane operator had avoided near certain death because he was delayed dropping his children off for school, was late for his shift and had not reached his cabin.
Several roads and Vauxhall tube, railway and bus stations were closed and trains into Waterloo were suspended.
On a visit to the crash scene, the mayor of London, Boris Johnson, said officials would review “the way we illuminate tall buildings, the way cranes are illuminated, to make sure nothing went wrong in this case and make sure nothing goes wrong in the future”.
A spokesman for the building’s owner, the Berkeley Group, said it could not confirm that two Civil Aviation Authority-approved navigation lights fixed to the crane were working in the morning, but said they had been checked and were operating properly the day before the accident happened.
Kate Hoey, MP for Vauxhall, said it was clear “something terribly wrong” had happened. “We will need a real inquiry into increasing numbers of helicopters flying around London, coupled with the fact there are so many new tall buildings.”
Late last year there were over 1,500 helicopter flights across the capital a month, according to figures from the Civil Aviation Authority. CAA rules mean that while single-engine helicopters are obliged to follow designated routes in central London twin-engine helicopters, such as the Agusta eight-seater that crashed, can operate in wider areas.
“There are requirements for lighting on tall structures,” a CAA spokesman said. “In addition, where appropriate, very tall structures are also notified to pilots for flight planning purposes, as was the case with the crane that was involved in this morning’s accident.”
At the crash scene Julian Firth, an investigator with the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, said the wreckage would be taken to the branch’s site at Farnborough, Hampshire, and it would take several months to produce a full report.
A spokesman for the National Air Traffic Service said: “The pilot had been receiving an air traffic control service from Nats, although was not receiving a service at the time of the crash.”
A spokesman for the London heliport said it “received a request from Heathrow air traffic control to accept the helicopter, which had asked to be diverted due to bad weather. The London heliport never gained contact with the helicopter.”
London City airport reported a cloudbase of 30.5 metres (100ft) at the time of the crash.