Federal investigators are expected to begin a preliminary investigation Tuesday at the site of a fatal sightseeing helicopter crash in Pigeon Forge that killed all five people aboard on Monday.
The National Transportation Safety Board is leading the investigation, with a team en route to the crash site on a wooded ridge behind an outlet mall.
“The team is getting set up,” NTSB spokesman Chris O’Neil said Tuesday morning. “We’re getting everybody in the daylight today and that will give the investigator in charge time to gather some facts.”
The NTSB is expected to hold a media briefing Tuesday afternoon, O’Neil added.
The Tennessee Highway Patrol’s Critical Incident Response Team also was at the site.
THP investigators were examining the crash site Tuesday morning before federal investigators arrived. The debris from the helicopter, marked by yellow crime scene tape and dozens of pink flags, stretches from the top of a roughly 80-foot ridge down to the bank of the west prong of the Little Pigeon River.
Smoke continued to rise near the wreckage from the smoldering remnants of a small forest fire sparked by the crash.
The crash, reported about 3:30 p.m. Monday, sparked a fire that burned into the night.
“There’s a little bit of the tail fin of the helicopter and that’s about all that’s left,” said Pigeon Forge Police Chief Jack Baldwin. “That and the console.”
Residents who live near the crash site described a puttering noise coming from the aircraft’s rotor as it went down.
Witnesses heard screams from the wreckage, and saw one man roll out of the helicopter before he died.
The bodies have been taken to the Regional Forensic Center in Knoxville to be identified at the request of the Federal Aviation Administration, Baldwin said.
The police chief said autopsies likely will be needed to identify the victims.
“That’ll be the medical examiner, because it was a pretty hot fire,” Baldwin said. “So that may take a while.”
The helicopter belonged to a touring company out of Sevierville, he added. Baldwin did not know which company owned it, who was on board or where it was headed.
The crash site, off Rainbow Road, is separated from a residential street by the West Prong of the Little Pigeon River. Spectators were still gathered in yards and back porches along the water’s edge to watch the fire burn five hours after the crash.
By then, the fire had moved to the north along the ridge, away from the wreckage. A spotlight lit up the remains of the helicopter, which had been marked with pink flags by investigators.
Wilma Law was on her back porch when she first heard a puttering from the rotor that “didn’t sound right,” and then watched the tail of the helicopter disappear behind the tree line.
Law and her daughter, Kristy, who called E-911, followed the billowing black smoke to the crash site. They heard screams for help, Kristy Law said.
Shawn Matern was in his house when he heard a loud boom. He said he saw the helicopter on fire and a man “more or less rolling out” of the aircraft.
“He was on fire … and rolling around,” Matern said. “My neighbor actually went across the river to actually check on him.
“A few minutes later he was gone.”
The neighbor, who said he was an EMT, declined to speak to reporters because the event was too traumatic.
Matern said he heard another person screaming for help, but he or she was trapped inside the helicopter.
“There was nothing you could do for them, you know, because they were too mangled up in there,” he said. “They were burning alive.