CALABASAS, Calif. (AP) — The helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant and eight others that crashed in the rugged hills outside Los Angeles was flying in foggy weather considered dangerous enough that local police departments had grounded their choppers.
The aircraft plunged into a steep hillside Sunday, scattering debris over an area the size of a football field and killing everyone aboard. The accident generated an outpouring of grief and shock around the world over the sudden loss of the all-time basketball great who spent his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Thousands of fans, many wearing Bryant jerseys and chanting his name, gathered outside the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles, home of the Lakers and site of Sunday’s Grammy Awards, where Bryant was honored.
The 41-year-old Bryant, who perished with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, was one of the game’s most popular players, an 18-time All-Star who helped lead the Lakers to five NBA championships.
The cause of the crash was unknown, but conditions at the time were such that the Los Angeles Police Department and the county sheriff’s department grounded their helicopters.
The Los Angeles County medical examiner, Dr. Jonathan Lucas, said the rugged terrain complicated efforts to recover the remains. He estimated it would take at least a couple of days to complete the task.
The Sikorsky S-76 went down in Calabasas, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Authorities did not say where Bryant was going, but the helicopter appeared headed in the direction of his youth sports academy in nearby Thousand Oaks, which was holding a basketball tournament Sunday in which Bryant’s daughter, known as GiGi, was competing.
Bryant’s helicopter left Santa Ana in Orange County, south of Los Angeles, shortly after 9 a.m., heading north and then west. Air traffic controllers noted poor visibility around Burbank to the north and Van Nuys to the northwest. The aircraft crashed into the hillside around 9:45 a.m. at about 1,400 feet (426 meters), according to data from Flightradar24.
When it struck the ground, the helicopter was flying at about 160 knots (184 mph) and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute, the data showed.
KBOI-TV in Boise, Idaho, reported that a girls team that was to have played against GiGi Bryant’s squad returned home Sunday night after learning of the fatal crash during the tournament at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy.
“All of a sudden the games just stopped, the whole facility went silent,” George Rodriguez, coach of the Treasure Valley Hoop Dreams team, told the station. “We heard some girls screaming. Nobody really quite knew what was going on until the news started to break ground and the message got around of the tragic stuff that happened with Kobe.”
Federal safety investigators were sent to the scene. Among other things, they will look at the pilot’s history and the chopper’s maintenance records, said National Transportation Safety Board board member Jennifer Homendy.
Kurt Deetz, a pilot who used to fly Bryant in the chopper, said the crash was more likely caused by bad weather than by engine or other mechanical problems.
“The likelihood of a catastrophic twin engine failure on that aircraft — it just doesn’t happen,” he told the Los Angeles Times.
Justin Green, an aviation attorney in New York who flew helicopters in the Marine Corps, said pilots can become disoriented in low visibility, losing track of which direction is up. Green said a pilot flying an S-76 would be instrument-rated, meaning that person could fly the helicopter without relying on visual cues from outside.
Colin Storm was in his living room in Calabasas when he heard what sounded to him like a low-flying airplane or helicopter.
“It was very foggy so we couldn’t see anything,” he said. “But then we heard some sputtering and then a boom.”
The fog cleared a bit, and Storm could see smoke rising from the hillside in front of his home.
Firefighters hiked in with medical equipment and hoses, and medical personnel rappelled to the site from a helicopter but found no survivors, authorities said.
News of the charismatic superstar’s death rocketed around the sports and entertainment worlds, with many taking to Twitter to register their shock, disbelief and anguish.
“Words can’t describe the pain I am feeling. I loved Kobe — he was like a little brother to me,” retired NBA great Michael Jordan said. “We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force.”
Bryant retired in 2016 as the third-leading scorer in NBA history, finishing two decades with the Lakers as a prolific shot-maker with a sublime all-around game and a relentless competitive drive. He held that spot in the league scoring ranks until Saturday night, when the Lakers’ LeBron James passed him for third place during a game in Philadelphia, Bryant’s hometown.
He was the league MVP in 2008 and a two-time NBA scoring champion. He teamed with Shaquille O’Neal in a combustible partnership to lead the Lakers to consecutive NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. He went on to win two more titles in 2009 and 2010.
His Lakers tenure was marred by scandal when in 2003, Bryant was accused of raping a 19-year-old employee at a Colorado resort. He said the two had consensual sex, and prosecutors later dropped the sexual assault charge at the request of the accuser. The woman filed a civil suit against Bryant that was settled out of court.
Among those killed in the crash were John Altobelli, 56, longtime head coach of Southern California’s Orange Coast College baseball team; his wife, Keri; and daughter, Alyssa, who played on the same basketball team as Bryant’s daughter, said Altobelli’s brother, Tony, sports information director at the school.
Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley tweeted that the dead also included Christina Mauser, a girls basketball coach at a nearby elementary school. Her husband, Matt Mauser, said in a Facebook post: “My kids and I are devastated. We lost our beautiful wife and mom today in a helicopter crash.”