Kobe Bryant, 41, the legendary basketball star who spent 20 years with the Lakers, was killed Sunday morning when the helicopter he was traveling in crashed amid foggy conditions and burst into flames in the hills above Calabasas.
His daughter Gianna, 13, was also on board, NBA authorities confirmed.
Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said nine people were on the copter — a pilot and eight passengers. He would not confirm who had died until all the next of kin have been notified, he said. The L.A. County coroner’s
office said Sunday night that the recovery effort is expected to take several days because of the condition of the crash site and its remote location. Officials have shut down roads leading to the site because of a throng of visitors trying to get there.
The helicopter, a Sikorsky S-76B built in 1991, departed John Wayne Airport at 9:06 a.m. Sunday, according to publicly available flight records. The chopper passed over Boyle Heights, near Dodger Stadium, and circled over Glendale during the flight.
The crash occurred shortly before 10 a.m. near Las Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street in Calabasas. Authorities received a 911 call at 9:47 a.m., and firefighters arrived to find that the crash had ignited a quarter-acre brush fire in steep terrain, said L.A. County Fire Chief Daryl Osby. Responders included 56 fire personnel — firefighters, a helicopter with paramedics, hand crews — and sheriff’s deputies.
Our firefighters hiked into the accident site with their medical equipment and hose lines to extinguish the stubborn fire as it included the brush fire … and the helicopter,” Osby said during a news conference Sunday afternoon. “The fire also included magnesium, which is very hard for firefighters to extinguish because magnesium reacts with oxygen and water.”
The Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash. The FBI is also assisting in the probe, which is standard practice. The NTSB database does not show any prior incidents or accidents for the aircraft. The helicopter was registered to the Fillmore-based Island Express Holding Corp., according to the California secretary of state’s business database. The helicopter’s manufacturer, Sikorsky, said in a statement Sunday that it is cooperating with the investigation.
The fog was severe enough Sunday morning that the Los Angeles Police Department’s Air Support Division grounded its helicopters and didn’t fly until later in the afternoon, department spokesman Josh Rubenstein said.
“The weather situation did not meet our minimum standards for flying,” Rubenstein said. The fog “was enough that we were not flying.” LAPD’s flight minimums are 2 miles of visibility and an 800-foot cloud ceiling, he said.
The L.A. County Sheriff’s Department made a similar assessment about the fog and had no helicopters in the air Sunday morning “basically because of the weather,” Villanueva said.
Kurt Deetz, a former pilot for Island Express Helicopters who used to fly Bryant in the chopper, said weather conditions were poor in Van Nuys on Sunday morning — “not good at all.”
The crash was more likely caused by bad weather than engine or mechanical issues, he said. “The likelihood of a catastrophic twin engine failure on that aircraft — it just doesn’t happen,” he said.
Judging from a public record of the flight path and the wide debris field, Deetz said, it appears the helicopter was traveling very fast at the time of impact, about 160 mph. After a 40-minute flight, Deetz added, the craft would have had about 800 pounds of fuel on board. “That’s enough to start a pretty big fire,” he said.
The Los Angeles County coroner’s office is working on retrieving the bodies and has not officially identified any of the victims. But Orange Coast College confirmed that baseball coach John Altobelli was among the others who died in the crash. As a mentor and coach for 27 years, he helped students earn scholarships to play at four-year colleges and treated players like family, the school said in a statement.
“Coach Altobelli was a giant on our campus — a beloved teacher, coach, colleague and friend. This is a tremendous loss for our campus community,” OCC President Angelica Suarez said in a statement.
Altobelli’s wife, Keri Altobelli, and their 13-year-old daughter, Alyssa, who played on the club team with Bryant’s daughter, were also among the victims, according to his family.
Bryant was scheduled to coach Sunday in a game at his Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks and was en route there when the helicopter crashed. The tournament, called the Mamba Cup, featured boys’ and girls’ travel teams of from fourth through eighth grade.
Scores of flowers, a Lakers banner and a photo of Bryant on the cover of Sports Illustrated were left at a growing memorial outside the locked front doors of the academy.
Christina Mauser, Bryant’s top assistant coach on the travel basketball team, was also killed in the crash.
“My kids and I are devastated,” her husband, Matt Mauser, wrote on Facebook. “We lost our beautiful wife and mom today in a helicopter crash.”
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Jerry Kocharian was standing outside the Church in the Canyon drinking coffee when he heard a helicopter that was flying unusually low and struggling.
“It [didn’t] sound right and it was real low. I saw it falling and spluttering. But it was hard to make out as it was so foggy,” Kocharian said. The helicopter vanished into a cloud of fog and then there was a boom.
“There was a big fireball,” he said. “No one could survive that.”