5:40pm Wednesday 16th January 2013
Two people including an experienced pilot have died after a helicopter crashed into a tower crane in the Nine Elms development area this morning.
Peter Barnes, 50, who has 20 years flying experience, was killed after his lightweight Agusta 109 helicopter crashed into the crane next to St George's Wharf Tower, on Nine Elms Lane, just after 8am.
Wreckage from the helicopter landed at the flower market in New Covent Garden Market and at a disused petrol station in Wandsworth Road, more than 500 metres from the tower.
It left a trail of debris between the various crash sites, some of which caused cars to catch fire.
The arm of the crane was severed in the crash causing it to plunge hundreds of feet to the ground narrowly missing dozens of construction workers who were working at St George's Wharf Tower.
Part of the crane's arm was still dangling precariously from the main structure as specialist engineers assessed whether it would collapse.
Two buildings and several cars caught fire after the wreckage plummeted to the ground but 80 firefighters, who arrived on the scene within minutes, brought the various blazes under control within half and hour.
Another person, who has not yet been named, was also killed on the ground near the tower.
A number of witnesses, both commuters and construction workers, described their reaction as the drama unfolded.
Crane driver, Rezart Isalma, who was about to start his shift when he saw the helicopter crash into St George tower, has described his survival as a miracle.
He said: "I am still in complete shock and can't believe I got away, it's a miracle.
"I saw the helicopters hit the arm of the crane and that the crane had snapped and the arm broke off. It took about 5 or 6 seconds before it fell to the floor."
Construction worker has described the moment he saw a helicopter "fireball" and crash to the ground after it smashed into a crane this morning.
Danny Riggs said: "The first thing I heard was a huge crash up on St George's Tower then I saw this fireball, which was the helicopter crashing to the ground right on to a few cars which were on Wandsworth Road near the Sainsbury's.
"It's unbelievable and incredible more people weren't hurt or killed."
Dean McIntosh, who lives just metres from the crash, was on his computer when he heard the crash.
He said: "From my bedroom window you can see the crane attached to the tower.
"From what I heard it sounded like the helicopter engine lost power – there was that noise, just before the bang.
"I ran to the window and could see a massive cloud of black smoke from where the school used to be."
Cesare Baccheschi, 29, has described the moment he heard the crash outside of Vauxhall station.
He said: "I just came out of the subway in Vauxhall, when I heard a big crash.
"Nobody knew what was going on, but few minutes later I saw smoke coming from nearby. It was a black thick smoke."
Dennis Judd, 42, who was cycling along Nine Elms Lane when the crash happened said it sounded like a "bomb".
He said: "In the moments after it hit, I feared the worse. I just assumed it was an explosion and dumped my bike and ran for cover.
"Lots of people did the same thing, I saw one guy just leave his car in the middle of the road."
"Someone else was on a motorbike but they just left it by the road and sprinted away."
Speaking at the crash site, Metropolitan Police Commander Neil Basu told the Wandsworth Guardian it was "miraculous" more people were not killed given how busy the area was and that it happened during the rush hour.
He added that one driver whose car was hit by the debris had managed to free himself from the vehicle on his own.
Commander Basu also confirmed that just four people, one suffering a broken leg, were taken to hospital.
The driver of the damaged crane, construction workers said, was running late and was just climbing up to his cab when the helicopter struck.
The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) said a warning about the crane had been sent out to pilot both in October and last week.
It was suggested that the lights on the crane, which are meant to be on 24 hours to alert pilots, were not lit at the time of the crash.
Residents had also previously complained about it not being lit.
Redhill Aerodrome confirmed the flight had departed at 7.35am on a scheduled flight to Elstree.
Although it was assumed that thick fog could have caused the crash, weather reports stated low cloud cover but no actual fog.
Aviation Accident Investigators were also at the scene but its findings will not be known for several months.
Vauxhall Cross, which handles tubes, trains and buses in the area, was closed for several hours.
A number of road closures caused gridlock in the Vauxhall one-way system, Clapham and Battersea.
Councillor Ravi Govindia, leader of Wandsworth Council, said: "I would like to offer my deepest condolences to the families of the two people who have lost their lives as a result of today’s tragic events in Vauxhall.
"I would also like to pay tribute to the courage and professionalism of the emergency services who responded so quickly and efficiently to today’s unprecedented scenes.
During Prime Minister's Questions this morning David Cameron also praised the "rapid" response of emergency services.
Cpt Barnes, from charter firm Rotormotion, was flying from Redhill, in Surrey, to Elstree, in Hertfordshire, but had asked to be diverted to nearby Battersea heliport because of the bad weather.
The pilot, who had accrued more than 12,000 hours flying time, is understood to have piloted helicopters in action scenes for films Die Another Day, Tomb Raider II and Saving Private Ryan.
According to his LinkedIn profile he had also operated flights for the Air Ambulance during a number of complicated rescue efforts and had worked at both the Athens and London Olympics.
Tributes from friends and former colleagues have been paid to Cpt Barnes.
Posting on the RotorMotion facebook page, where he worked as a contract and training pilot, Joanne Facer wrote: "So sorry for the sad loss of Peter Barnes. RIP"
Lorraine Pickett said: "So sorry to everyone at rotormotion after the death of Pete Barnes, a very sad day... R.I.P Pete,xx"
Andrew Warnock wrote: "Sad Sad day. deepest sympathy to all at Rotormotion and prayers for Pete Barnes Family".
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