Story updated 5 p.m., 12/28/2019
Kauai County officials confirmed Saturday that all seven people onboard a tour helicopter Thursday evening died in the crash on the island’s north shore.
The U.S. Coast Guard and state and county agencies resumed the search for survivors Saturday after finding the remains of six people Friday in Kokee near steep, remote terrain between Milolii Ridge Road and Nualolo Trail, county officials said.
Kauai County officials say police believe the pilot to be 69-year-old Paul Matero of Wailua and two of the passengers to be 47-year-old Amy Gannon and 13-year-old Jocelyn Gannon of Wisconsin. The four other passengers are believed to be a family from Switzerland: a 50-year-old female, 49-year-old male, 13-year-old female and a 10-year-old female. Their names have not yet been released.
Recovery efforts were suspended Saturday afternoon. The scene was turned over to the National Transportation Safety Board, a county release says.
“We offer our continued condolences and prayers to the families and friends of the victims,” Kauai Police Department Assistant Chief Bryson Ponce said in a statement Saturday evening. “As we continue to search for and recover evidence pertinent to this tragic helicopter crash, we hope to bring some sense of closure to the loved ones of the victims.”
Due to the additional recovery efforts, the nature of the crash and impact damage, Kauai police can confirm that there are no survivors, a county news release says.
Kauai Fire Department Battalion Chief Solomon Kanoho said searches were suspended Friday at 3:30 p.m. due to fog but resumed Saturday.
“There are no indications of survivors,” Kanoho said.
Correction: A previous version of this graph included non-tour crashes.
A pathologist was coming from Oahu to help identify the bodies. With Thursday’s crash, at least 45 people have died in tour helicopter crashes since 2000.
An NTSB investigator is en route to Kauai, Kanoho said. The FAA issued temporary flight restrictions in the search area.
The Eurocopter AS350 helicopter, owned by Safari Helicopters, departed from Lihue on Thursday evening but did not return. The aircraft was reportedly due back at 5:21 p.m. The helicopter’s owner contacted the Coast Guard command center at 6:06 p.m., according to the Coast Guard.
The aircraft is equipped with an electronic locator but the Coast Guard said no signals were received.
County officials, citing a preliminary report, said the helicopter last made contact about 4:40 p.m. Thursday when the pilot reported leaving Waimea Canyon.
The Coast Guard says two of the six passengers are reportedly minors.
The AS350 is widely used as a tour helicopter across the state. That model crashed twice on Kauai, once in 2005 and again in 2007.
Before Thursday, there had been 10 fatal tour helicopter crashes resulting in 38 deaths since 2000 in Hawaii, according to NTSB data. The deadliest so far occurred in July 2000 when an Aerospatiale AS355-F1, a cousin of the AS350, crashed in Kahului, killing seven on Maui.
“This is such a deep tragedy, not only for the seven lives feared lost, but that we must confront this reality in Hawaii for the third time in just one year,” Congressman Ed Case said in a statement Friday afternoon.
Two female passengers and the pilot were killed in a helicopter crash in April on a residential street in Kailua on Oahu. That aircraft was a Robinson R44 owned by Novictor Aviation, according to the FAA. And in June, 11 people died when a skydiving tour plane, a Beech 65A90, crashed on the north shore of Oahu.
Case slammed the FAA for not doing enough to ensure public safety.
“Tour helicopter and small aircraft operations are not safe, and innocent lives are paying the price,” he said. “We know this not only because of repeated fatal accidents and other incidents over the years, but because the National Transportation Safety Board, responsible for analyzing all such accidents, has placed safety improvements for such operations on its highest priority list. We further know that the Federal Aviation Administration, responsible for regulating our nation’s airspace, has not taken the NTSB’s concerns seriously.”
Hawaii’s junior Democratic congressman also faulted the industry, saying the tour helicopter and small aircraft industry is “completely incapable of self-regulation.”
“In our Hawaii alone, the industry, while stridently arguing that it is safe and sensitive to neighborhoods, has in fact ignored any sensible safety improvements, instead dramatically increasing in recent years its volume of flights, at all times of day and night, in seemingly all weather, over more residential neighborhoods and to more risky and remote locations, at lower altitudes, while completely failing to address ground safety and community disruption concerns,” Case said.
“How many more wakeup calls do we need?” — Congressman Ed Case
In September, the congressman said he introduced the Safe and Quiet Skies Act, HR 4547, to impose strict safety, noise and community disruption regulations on the industry nationwide. The proposal would require FAA to adopt NTSB recommendation like the “sterile cockpit rule” that commercial airlines must follow, which says pilots must focus only on aircraft operation and safety — no tour duties.
“This is not just about the safety of our visitors,” Case said. “Every year thousands of tour helicopter and small aircraft flights fly thousands of flights directly over hundreds of thousands of our households, businesses, cemeteries, parks and other places throughout Hawaii where we all live, work, play and remember our lost ones. How many more wakeup calls do we need, how much more risk and disruption must we tolerate?”
Management at Safari Helicopters did not immediately return a request for comment Friday.
The Coast Guard worked with the Navy as well as the Kauai Fire Department, Kauai National Guard, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and other commercial tour operators during searches Friday.
An HC-130 Hercules and a helicopter crew were expected to leave Barbers Point on Oahu to begin early morning searches for the missing craft.
Coast Guard Cutter William Hart was expected to arrive off the coast of Kauai about 8:30 a.m., followed by a U.S. Navy helicopter crew at 9 a.m. The U.S. Air Force’s Civil Air Patrol will also be assisting in searches Friday.
Shoreline searches by security at the Pacific Missile Range Facility did not find signs of the helicopter Thursday, the Coast Guard said.
Gov. David Ige said in a statement that the state is ready to commit additional resources to the operation if the need arises.
Land, sea and air searches by the various agencies were planned to continue through Friday, Kauai County officials said in a news release.
Winds are expected to be 28 miles per hour with seven-foot waves, according to the Coast Guard.
The Coast Guard said weather was a challenge in Thursday’s search. Tour companies operated normally on Thursday.
Kanoho, of the Kauai Fire Department, said the missing helicopter followed a similar route to the other tour companies.
The Eurocopter AS350 is widely known in the aviation world as the workhorse of helicopters.
Called the “A-Star” in the U.S., it’s been used for services like firefighting and news coverage as well as commercial activities including touring and farming.
Preston Myers, owner of Safari Helicopters, is credited for first bringing the AS350 to the islands in the 1980s. In a 2017 story about the company in The Garden Island, Myers says safety is a top priority for him.
And while the AS350 is used by several Kauai tour operators, there were two fatal incidents involving similar models of the craft in the early 2000s. Both came from the now-defunct Heli USA Airways based in Las Vegas and operating out of Lihue.
In 2005, a Heli USA pilot lost control of his helicopter near Haena on Kauai’s north shore after encountering heavy rain.
“The pilot stated that he applied full power and that the helicopter’s rate of descent suddenly stopped,” an NTSB report of the incident said. “He stated that the helicopter went back up in the air momentarily and entered an immediate hard spin to the left, which took the flight over the water.”
Three died in the crash, and another three sustained minor injuries.
The helicopter lacked flotation devices, and the NTSB stated that the crash was caused by the “pilot’s decision to continue flight into adverse weather conditions, which resulted in a loss of control due to an encounter with a microburst.”
In 2007, the same company experienced another crash, this time in Princeville, that killed four and injured three.
The pilot reported a hydraulic failure before crash landing just off the Princeville Airport runway. Maintenance personnel failed to tighten a servo tab and replace a worn washer, the NTSB reported.
“Contributing to the accident was the operator’s failure to ensure its maintenance program was being executed in accordance with Federal regulations,” the NTSB said.
In a 2008 story by the Honolulu Star-Bulletin on the incident, Nigel Turner, owner of Heli USA, blamed Eurocoptor for a faulty hydraulic system. Eurocoptor, in turn, placed blame on Turner for not properly maintaining the craft.
A story that takes fives minutes to read often takes days to report.
Quality journalism takes time and resources to produce, but with support from readers like you, Civil Beat can investigate issues and publish stories that are otherwise difficult to fund.
Become a donor and help support Civil Beat’s next investigation.