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Police: Four Dead as Helicopter Slams Onto I-70

A commercial helicopter crashed onto a western Maryland interstate highway and burst into flames late Thursday, killing all four people on board, emergency officials said. Video by AP

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By Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 24, 2009; 5:58 PM

A federal transportation official said the helicopter that crashed into a rural Maryland stretch of I-70 on Thursday was burned so severely that the wreckage was unrecognizable as a helicopter.

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During a briefing at the Hagerstown Regional Airport Friday, Kitty Higgins, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, also said that the four people killed onboard were returning to Frederick after conducting charity tours to raise money for troubled youth.

The Maryland State Police identified the victims as Jeffrey D. Nordaas, 24, of Columbia, who piloted the flight; Niall R. Y. Booth, 43, and Kim R. Felix, 48, both of New Market; and George H. Tutor, Jr., 39 of Westminster. Maryland police said no vehicles were struck by the crash and no one on was injured on the ground.

Higgins said witnesses reported seeing the helicopter, a Robinson R44, flying very low in an area where power lines ran 70 feet above the ground. Witnesses also reported seeing sparks, apparently caused by the helicopter striking the lines.

"The cabin was consumed by fire," she said. "It was not survivable."

NTSB officials said at least two of the male passengers were employees of Frederick-based Advanced Helicopter Youth Foundation. The foundation declined to comment.

Higgins said the safety board, which investigates all U.S. civil aviation accidents, will examine the aircraft's maintenance records as well weather and radar information. Safety experts say power lines are a frequent enemy of helicopters. They can be made of copper or steel and be as thin as a pencil, making them difficult to see, especially at night.

The safety board also will probe the pilot's certification and experience level. Higgins said the pilot had 630 hours in flight time, but declined to comment when asked to characterize it as a high or low experience level. Gary C. Robb, a lawyer and helicopter crash expert, said he believed only pilots with at least 1,000 hours should be allowed to fly nonfamily members.

Higgins said the victims had delayed their return by two hours because of weather. Even after the delay, the flying conditions included fog and rain. The helicopter departed at 10:15 p.m., and could have been flying low to avoid the fog at higher elevations. It crashed fifteen minutes after lifting off. The accident occurred near the border of Washington and Frederick counties, where the terrain is hilly and includes South Mountain ridge, which is the source of paths that connect to the Appalachian Trails.

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