Missing pieces could help solve crash puzzles
A lab will examine components found as a search continues
NORTH SHORE, Kauai » Eyewitness testimonies have been the primary way federal transportation investigators have gathered information into the two helicopter crashes on Kauai the past week.
But both lead investigators say that it will likely be the wrecked helicopters' components that point to the cause of the two crashes that have killed five people and left six others hospitalized.
The two sit side-by-side in the same hangar at Lihue Airport, said the lead investigator in Sunday's crash, Jim Silliman of the National Transportation Safety Board.
Silliman, who arrived from the NTSB office in Chicago on Monday, has yet to talk to Donald Torres, the pilot of the Inter-Island Helicopters craft that crashed in Haena on Sunday.
Until then, he said, he could not give definite details of the position of the helicopter at the time Torres suffered major problems with the tail rotor.
Witnesses heard two loud noises.
The tail rotor, the blades and the entire mechanism that turns the rotor fell into the ocean Sunday, moments before Torres crash-landed.
Despite finding some metal pieces in the ocean, Silliman said divers were unable to come up with the major components Monday after looking in waters off Haena Beach.
A northwest swell hit Kauai yesterday, keeping divers out of the water. The swell will likely make it impossible to dive for at least a few days.
But Silliman said he does have half the gear box that sheared apart, and he expects to send the remnants to the NTSB lab in Washington, D.C., where metallurgists are expected to help determine what caused the break.
"We really need to get the parts to the lab." Until then, he said, "we can't rule anything out."
In that vein, part of the team is scouring maintenance records at Inter-Island Helicopters and the pilot's record as well.
Brian Rayner, the NTSB lead investigator of Thursday's Heli USA crash, spent much of the day with the lone witness of the crash and a number of Heli USA employees, including the chief mechanic and the dispatcher who talked to pilot Joe Sulak as he experienced hydraulic problems.
Rayner, too, "shipped a great deal of parts" to the NTSB lab for testing, including hydraulics, the engine and other parts, he said.
The eyewitness, whom the NTSB did not identify, described that everything seemed fine as the Heli USA craft approached the far end of the runway at Princeville Airport.
Though it was odd for the craft to land at the north end of the airport, it was flying slowly, at a low altitude, and appeared ready to land.
She related that "everything occurred very slowly," Rayner said. Even the crash "occurred at a slow rate of speed and she felt in her mind that everybody was OK."
There "was nothing unusual about the movement of the helicopter until it very suddenly pitched nose-over," she told Rayner yesterday.
She said that no floats were deployed until after the crash.
Rayner said the witness, an Avis Rent-a-Car employee, gave a "very careful, cogent presentation" and a "very detailed account."
Still, he said, it will likely come down to the examination of components to figure out the cause.
"We're trying to be as thorough as we can without detecting meaning," at this point, Rayner said. "We'll give all the evidence its day in court, so to speak."