Posted: Jan 8, 2013 12:08 PM by Associated Press
LIMA, Peru (AP) - Investigators picked through the wreckage Tuesday of a U.S.-owned cargo helicopter that crashed in the Peruvian jungle, killing five American and two Peruvian crew members.
The heavy-lift, tandem-rotor Chinook BH-234 chopper, owned by Columbia Helicopters, Inc. of the Portland suburb of Aurora, Oregon, crashed Monday shortly after taking off from the provincial capital of Pucallpa bound for Tarapoto. The company said it was under contract for petroleum exploration support.
Witnesses quoted in local media reports said it lost control and spewed smoke before crashing.
The Pucallpa airport control tower had its last contact with the aircraft at 3:03 p.m., five minutes after takeoff, Peru's civil aviation authority reported, and controllers saw "a big cloud of smoke" four miles (six kilometers) northeast of the airport.
A local police commander, Miguel Cardoso, told The Associated Press that three bodies were recovered Monday and two more had been located inside the chopper's charred wreckage.
He said it appears the three taken to the morgue on Monday had jumped from the chopper, as witness reported.
"They have different trauma. It appears they jumped out of the helicopter out of desperation because they have multiple fractures," Cardoso said by phone.
Columbia Helicopters' executive vice president, Peter Lance, said from Oregon that the five dead Americans were U.S.-based employees of the company from different parts of the country.
The company identified the five as Dann Immel, command pilot, of Gig Harbor, Washington, Edwin Cordova, maintenance crew chief, of Melbourne, Florida, Jaime Pickett, mechanic, of Clarksville, Tennessee, Darrel Birkes, senior load manager, an Oregonian living in Peru, and Leon Bradford, a load manager from Santaquin, Utah.
The two Peruvians were co-pilot Igor Castillo and mechanic Luis Ramos, the company said in a news release.
Lance said he had no immediate information on what might have caused the crash, adding that the company had dispatched its own investigative team.
Asked about local media reports that the aircraft might have been overloaded, Lance said, "That's all speculation," adding that the company is "very careful about not overloading our aircraft."
Lance said the helicopter had been contracted by Canada-based Talisman Energy Inc., though he was not sure if it was on a mission for Talisman or if the company had subcontracted it.
He said he did not yet have information on its cargo.
A spokeswoman for Talisman, Veronica Bonifaz, said the chopper was not transporting cargo or personnel for it at the time of the crash. She said she had no more immediate information.
A spokesman for the airport authority in Pucallpa, Dan Vela Diaz, told the AP that he had no manifest for the aircraft because it had only landed in Pucallpa to refuel.
Columbia Helicopters has been in business for 55 years, principally in the United States, and Lance said it has been operating in Peru for more than a decade, primarily contracted to companies, like Talisman, engaged in oil and gas exploration.
The Chinook that crashed was one of two helicopters Columbia has in Peru.
Lance, who said he has been with Columbia Helicopters for 33 years, said it has been at least a decade since a company aircraft crashed.
According to U.S. National Transportation Safety Board records, in October 1996 a Columbia Helicopters Boeing Vertol BV-107 lost control during a maintenance check flight and crashed three miles from the Aurora, Oregon airport, killing both pilots and the onboard mechanic. The NTSB listed a maintenance failure as the probable cause.
In addition to petroleum exploration, Columbia Helicopters provides services to industries including logging, construction and fighting wildfires, according to its website.
It bills itself as "the only operator of the commercial models of the CH-47 Chinook and H-46 Sea Knight helicopters."
Associated Press Writer Carla Salazar contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)
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