By Tom Pettifor and Ben Rossington
The Daily Mirror
LONDON — Two people were killed when a stricken helicopter crashed into rush-hour traffic and exploded in London yesterday morning.
Screaming commuters ran for their lives as the chopper plunged more than 700 feet through the fog to the road below after it struck a construction crane.
Shocked witnesses told of a deafening explosion and a massive wall of flames as deadly shards of metal rained down and gallons of blazing aviation fuel wreaked havoc in the capital.
Drivers abandoned cars that were set alight moments later as the helicopter "cartwheeled" to the ground yards from Vauxhall station where thousands made their way to work. One driver was trapped and had to be rescued by firefighters.
Emergency services said last night it was a "miracle" that no one else was killed or seriously injured by the raging fireball.
The pilot Captain Pete Barnes, 50, and Matthew Wood, 39, from Sutton, South London — who was passing by — died at the scene. Another 12 people were injured with one suffering a broken leg.
Three were taken to St Thomas' Hospital while two went to King's College Hospital but were discharged by the afternoon.
The horror crash happened after the low-flying AgustaWestland 109 civilian twin-engine helicopter — carrying just the pilot — hit the structure by the St George Wharf Tower development in Vauxhall close to the River Thames at 8am.
Metropolitan Police Commander Neil Basu said: "It was something of a miracle that this was not many, many times worse."
Local resident Michael Krumstets, 45, recalled: "There was a loud crack and the helicopter started spinning out of control, incredibly, towards us.
"It crashed just feet from us. Panic set in and we ran across the road — my flatmate fell and I had to grab him. We were just so lucky."
The area was evacuated because of the precarious position of the crane at the top of the tower. Tony Pidgley, the chairman of site developers Berkley, said the crane driver had been told not to go up the structure because of the fog.
He added: "The crane driver was not up in the crane — we would not allow him to go up when the fog is at that level. He was on site having a cup of tea."
Ray Watts, from Ruislip, North London, said he was lucky to be alive after part of the crane smashed into his van. The dad-of-three was delivering plasterboard to the site and got out for a chat with a security guard.
Ray, 45, said: "I was walking back and there was a bang and debris started to fall. Me and the driver in front just ran. It was sheer panic. I didn't look back.
"A while later the security guys said the big bit of the crane landed on my van. If I hadn't been for that chat I could still have been sat in my van when it hit."
Sharon Moore, 36, who lives on an estate yards from the crash site, said: "We looked up at the helicopter — one minute it was flying normally, the next it was being erratic.
"It was rocking and shaking from side to side and then it went straight into the arm of the crane.
"The helicopter came spiralling down and then it hit at least one car that was driving towards Vauxhall.
"There were three loud bangs — 'boom, boom, boom' — and cars were on fire."
A worker at the New Covent Garden Flower Market, around 200 yards from the scene, said some debris from the crash — thought to be the gearbox — hit a worker in the leg.
London Mayor Boris Johnson, who visited the site yesterday, said the situation could have been "much worse".
He added: "It is immensely reassuring that the emergency services got to the scene so quickly and did such a fantastic job throughout the day."
Eight fire engines, four fire rescue units and 88 firefighters plus officers attended the scene. The London Ambulance Service sent six ambulance crews and its hazardous area response team — the first crew was there in under four minutes. Police said Mr Barnes had diverted the (EURO)4million chopper to the London Heliport in Battersea amid foggy conditions.
He had been travelling from Redhill, Surrey, to Elstree in Hertfordshire, the location of film studios where ITV's Dancing on Ice and Big Brother are filmed.
He is thought to have been collecting a VIP. Investigations were last night centred on why the helicopter crashed into the development — the tallest residential building in the country. The crane was struck a week after pilots were warned about its presence on the 51-storey high rise.
A member of the public told the Civil Aviation Authority last October of concerns that the crane was not being properly lit.
James Harvard, a 36-year-old web developer who lives about 800 yards from the crash site, also told police that there was no warning light illuminated on the crane.
Cdr Basu said: "I'm not aware of those complaints but that will form part of the investigation."
It is not yet clear whether the crane was lit at the time of the crash but sources said two lights on the structure were tested daily and were working on Monday.
But the CAA confirmed that aviation warning lights on tall structures only need to be turned on at night — and not during bad weather in daylight hours — because they are not visible in fog or low cloud. Under the rules, the period defined as night ended about 30 minutes before the crash.
Aviation expert Chris Yates said: "Helicopters are not supposed to come within 500 feet of tall structures. I don't know what caused the pilot to get so close.
"I don't know if there was a problem with the helicopter itself, if he misread instructions or if he received false ones from air traffic control."
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