Investigators canvassing area of deadly helicopter crash in Cave Creek

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by Natalie Rivers and Catherine Holland

azfamily.com

Posted on February 14, 2010 at 5:48 PM

Updated Monday, Feb 15 at 6:05 PM

Map: Helicopter crash in Cave Creek

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CAVE CREEK - Federal investigators arrived on the scene of a helicopter crash that killed five people on Sunday afternoon.

Authorities have confirmed the five deaths. Among the deceased are 64-year-old Thomas Stewart, his wife Madina and their 5-year-old daughter Sydney. Also on board was Stewart's longtime pilot and two dogs. The fifth person on board has not been identified.

Pete von Reichbauer, a King County Council member, spoke to 3TV's sister station in Seattle and confirmed that Thomas Stewart, along with his wife, daughter and a pilot were aboard the helicopter on Sunday. Reichbauer said he has been best friends with Stewart for many, many years.

While nobody on the ground was injured, investigators are trying to determine if there were more people aboard the American Eurocopter EC135 when it went down in the area of 73rd Street and Highland Road in Cave Creek. This particular aircraft can carry up to six people.

Ian Gregor with the Federal Aviation Administration said the helicopter went down about 3 p.m in some rugged desert terrain not far from a residential neighborhood.

Neighbors said the twin-engine helicopter exploded into flames on impact.

Witnesses said they heard loud, abnormal rotor noises coming from the helicopter.

Nicoleta Nork saw the helicopter go down and said she saw the rotors coming apart just moments before the crash.

Smoke from the scene was visible for miles and debris was scattered over an extremely large area.

"It's a huge scene -- several hundred feet," said Dep. Lindsey Smith of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. "With that force, that amount of impact, that amount of devastation, it's hundreds and hundreds of feet. Things fly everywhere, so we have to cover every square inch."

Investigators with the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board are at the site north of the Valley.

There's no word on what caused the accident, but investigators will try to determine if there was some kind of catastrophic mechanical failure, possibly in the rotor system. Weather is not believed to be a factor in the crash as it was clear in the Cave Creek area at the time.

In addition to possible mechanical issues, investigators will also look at the pilot's training and record. Extensive training is required to operate the Eurocopter EC135.

The $6 million helicopter was owned by Stewart's private Scottsdale corporation called Services Group of America. SGA is one of the largest private companies in Arizona. It specializes in the food-service industry and real estate.

SGA released a statement late Monday afternoon stating that five people were aboard the helicopter when it departed the Flagstaff area en route to Scottsdale Air Park. Stewart, 64, was the Chairman and CEO of SGA.

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