Updated Thursday, January 17, 2013 at 06:35 AM
LONDON – A helicopter crashed into a crane and fell on a crowded street in central London during morning rush hour Wednesday, sending flames and black plumes of smoke into the air. The pilot and one person on the ground were killed and 13 others injured, officials said.
The helicopter crashed in foggy weather just south of the River Thames near the Underground and mainline train station at Vauxhall, and close to the headquarters of spy agency MI6.
The helicopter, with only the pilot on board, had been flying toward Elstree, the location of several British film studios north of London, but the pilot had requested to divert and land at the nearby London Heliport because of bad weather, heliport officials said.
Police said one person had critical injuries. Six were taken to a nearby hospital with minor injuries and seven treated at the scene, ambulance officials said.
“It was something of a miracle that this was not many, many times worse,” police Cmdr. Neil Basu said.
The aircraft, an AgustaWestland 109, was on a commercial flight, said Philip Amadeus, managing director of RotorMotion, an executive helicopter-charter business.
The company identified the pilot as Peter Barnes, 50, whose career included flying in films including “Saving Private Ryan” and the James Bond movie “Die Another Day.”
“He was a very highly skilled pilot, one of the most experienced in the U.K., with over 12,000 flying hours,” Amadeus said.
Police identified the other death as Matthew Wood, 39, from south London.
The crash unfolded at the height of the morning commute when thousands of pedestrians in the area were trying to get to work. The weather at the time was overcast and misty with fog and poor visibility, according to the Met Office weather service.
Witnesses said the disaster occurred when the helicopter hit a crane atop the 50-story Tower, one of Europe’s tallest residential buildings. The Tower is in the St. George Wharf development.
“I was 100 percent sure it was a terrorist attack,” said Allen Crosbie, site manager for the landscape firm Maylim, who was working at the scene. “There was debris everywhere, a ton of black smoke. Parts of the crane, parts of the helicopter. I heard bang, bang; I presume it was the helicopter hitting the crane and then the ground. People were just panicking.”
There were no indications, however, that the crash was anything but an accident.
William Belsey, 25, a landscape worker, also said he heard the helicopter hit the crane. “Luckily the crane operator was late for work this morning. He picked a good day to be late,” Belsey said.
Mayor Boris Johnson said the crane had been secured and was not in danger of collapsing.
British aviation authorities had issued a “notice to airmen” warning pilots about the crane, which extended to 770 feet above ground. The crane is lit at night, and police said investigators would look at whether the light was faulty.
The area, roughly 10 blocks from the major Waterloo train and Underground station, is extremely congested during the morning rush hour. Many commuters arrive at the mainline stations from London’s southern suburbs and transfer to buses or trains there.
Aviation expert Chris Yates said that weather may have played a role. Investigators also would look at whether the crane had navigation lights.
Material from The New York Times is included in this report.
The Associated Press
Debris lies on the ground after a helicopter crashed into a construction crane on top of St. George Wharf tower building in London.