Kobe Bryant helicopter crash investigators using drones to scan site

Federal investigators will continue sifting through the wreckage on Tuesday morning

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Investigators will continue after sunrise Tuesday to sift through the wreckage of Kobe Bryant’s ill-fated helicopter that crashed in California, killing the former NBA star, his daughter and seven others on board, as they try to answer both the why and how of the accident.

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An 18-member National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) team, assisted by FBI forensic specialists, began mapping the wreckage site Monday with drone aircraft and examining debris scattered across the hillside where Bryant’s chopper went down on Sunday.

Los Angeles County coroner’s investigators, working alongside aviation NTSB inspectors, said they had recovered the first three bodies collected from the crash site and were searching for more remains.

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Officials said that they would be on the scene for about five days collecting perishable evidence and would not draw any conclusions in the near term, also noting that the craft was not equipped with a flight data recorder called a “black box.”

In a sign limited visibility was of particular interest to investigators as reports indicated foggy conditions, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy appealed to the public to come forward with any photographs that might help document local weather conditions at the time of the crash.

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But Homendy told reporters that weather was just one factor.

“We take a broad look at everything in an investigation - man, machine and the environment. And weather is just a small portion of that,” she said at a late-afternoon news conference in Calabasas, California, about mile from the crash site, roughly 40 miles (65 km) northwest of downtown Los Angeles.

Bryant, who won five National Basketball Association championships in his 20 years with the Los Angeles Lakers, was known since his playing days to travel frequently by helicopter to avoid the Los Angeles area’s glacial traffic.

In addition to the charismatic 41-year-old and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, three other families linked to the Mamba Sports Academy perished on their way to a girls’ basketball tournament: a husband and wife with their 13-year-old daughter; a mother and her 13-year-old daughter; and a basketball coach who was also a mother.

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The ninth victim was the pilot, Ara Zobayan, an experienced former flight instructor who was instrument-rated, or qualified to fly in fog, according multiple media accounts.

The company that owns the chopper, Island Epress Helicopters, said the pilot had more than 10 years experience and has logged more than 8,000 flight hours.

Vanessa Bryant, from left, Kobe Bryant, Natalia Bryant and Gianna Maria-Onore Bryant on Feb. 26, 2018. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP, File)

Witnesses recounted thick fog over the foothills where the helicopter went down. The fog was so bad that both the Los Angeles Police Department and Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department grounded their helicopter fleets, the Los Angeles Times reported, citing officials.

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Air traffic controllers gave the pilot “Special Visual Flight Rules,” or clearance to fly in less than optimal weather around the Burbank airport.

The chopper crashed Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Calabasas, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Matt Hartman)

A Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) official noted a pilot “does not get a general, or blanket, clearance from the FAA to fly in these conditions. A pilot is responsible for determining whether it is safe to fly in current and expected conditions.”

The NBA canceled a game scheduled for Staples Center on Tuesday between the Lakers and their crosstown rivals, the Clippers, as fans mourned.