A pilot who was saved two years ago after a dramatic Everglades crash died Wednesday when his helicopter crashed shortly after takeoff from Kendall-Tamiami Executive Airport. A passenger in the chopper also died.
Though police had not released the names, a friend at the scene said the pilot was Mark Palmieri, who owned Bravo Helicopters based at the airport, and the passenger was Ross Allan. Both men sustained severe chest injuries.
In Wednesday’s accident, no one on the ground was injured at the industrial park where the crash occurred. Witnesses rushed out with fire extinguishers to put out the fire and to pull the victims out of the burning four-seat aircraft.
“I was sick,” said Valerie Senior, 18, who saw the chopper crash and the aftermath in an industrial park in Southwest Miami-Dade. “I wanted to help the men.”
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She rushed out of her mother’s gym after hearing the helicopter’s tail break off, which she thought was a truck crash at first. She saw the helicopter come down between two palm trees and burst into flames.
Her mother, Julia Senior, 43, was outside on the phone about 10 feet away from the crash.
“It’s something really horrible to happen in front of you,” said Julia Senior, who owns the Fitness Factory gym in the industrial park on the 13000 block of Southwest 122nd Avenue. “I cried for half an hour.”
The two women ran back inside to escape the fire.
“Smoke started coming right inside the door,” Valerie Senior said.
Miami-Dade police spokesman Roy Rutland said homicide detectives will join the National Transportation Safety Board in investigating the crash. Federal Aviation Administration officials also will be involved.
Among the scenarios being considered is that the chopper collided with a bird, said NTSB investigator Patrick Murray Wednesday night. “We have witnesses reporting there were birds in the area,” he said.
The men were flying a Robinson R-44 helicopter, which measures about 30-feet long and weighs 1,500 pounds. They took off from the airport shortly before 4 p.m.
The manufacturer of that model had issued an order to fix to the fuel tanks, according to Miami Herald news partner CBS4.
Focus fell on the choppers in the fall of 2008, two years after a deadly crash in the Dominican Republic that left four people dead.
In the past, aviation attorneys have sued Robinson claiming the choppers’ gas tanks are improperly designed and will burst and catch fire even in low impact crashes, CBS4 said.
Robinson helicopters issued a retrofit order to make the fuel tanks stronger, but owners have until April 30th to comply.
It is not known if the helicopter involved in Wednesday’s crash had its fuel tank retrofitted.
When Miami-Dade Fire Rescue arrived, they found “an active fire’’ and extinguished it soon after, said spokeswoman Cristina Armand
The airport, owned by Miami-Dade County, is generally used by corporate and recreational aircraft and government agencies. It is also used for flight training. Its control tower is staffed by the FAA, according to the airport’s website.
Normally, the parking lot is full of people around 4 p.m., Julia Senior said. She was expecting several people for a fitness class, but they were running late.
In March 2011, Palmieri was on his way to Tamiami airport from Orlando when his chopper developed trouble and went down in a remote area west of U. S. 27 in the Everglades.
He crashed in a area where there are no roads, four miles west of U. S. 27 and nine miles north of Interstate 75 in far western Broward County.
He managed to call a friend before passing out.
BSO Fire rescue called in units from Palm Beach Sheriff’s Office and Miami-Dade Fire-Rescue to help divide the vast search area in the Everglades into a manageable size.
Airboat units from Broward County and the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission were called in to help with the ground search.
“This was truly like searching for a needle in a haystack,” BSO spokesman Mike Jachles said at the time.
A Palm Beach Sheriff’s chopper spotted the capsized Robinson R-44 helicopter and its pilot lying unconscious just outside the pilot’s door. A BSO Fire Rescue chopper dropped a flight medic down to assist an injured and unresponsive Palmieri. He was hospitalized in critical condition for several days.
“We don’t know if he was thrown from it or he self-extricated,” Jachles said at the time.