Two men working for San Diego Gas & Electric were killed Wednesday when their helicopter clipped a power line and crashed in flames as they were attempting to install aircraft warning markers on high-voltage lines in northern San Diego County.
The main rotor of the McDonnell Douglas Hughes 500 helicopter struck one of the transmission lines, authorities said, sending it and the men inside tumbling into rugged terrain about 10:15 a.m. at the base of Rock Mountain north of Fallbrook.
Authorities declined to release the victims' names, pending notification of next of kin. Both men lived out of state.
The crash was the second in less than a month for the Miami-based company hired by SDG&E to install the warning markers. The previous crash occurred Nov. 16 in Carlsbad, and while a helicopter was lost in that incident, no one was hurt.
Witnesses said the copter that crashed Wednesday had been filled with warning markers--plastic balls 36 inches in diameter--before it flew toward a power line banked on the sharp incline of a canyon at the end of De Luz Heights Road, near Sandia Creek Drive.
"Just as the helicopter was approaching one of the towers, it struck a wire," said Don Hesse, who videotaped the crash. "There was a flash, and the helicopter disintegrated into a million tiny pieces."
Hesse had been watching the helicopter mark the lines where the balls would be placed, and as the craft returned to load the markers out of a truck, he decided to videotape the installation for his grandchildren.
"The crew around me was shocked," he said of the crash. "Some were crying. They wanted to get to the scene but couldn't because of the terrain."
"They were in the process of attaching a marker to a static wire above a 230,000-volt line," SDG&E spokesman Bruce Liska said. "The main rotor of the helicopter contacted the static wire and that caused the ship to crash."
Liska said the rotor then struck a 12,000-volt line below the static line and caromed into the canyon. The crash left the surrounding area without power for 2 1/2 hours and ignited a 6-acre brush fire that burned for almost six hours.
Fifty-one firefighters from Fallbrook and the California Department of Forestry stalked through mountainous terrain with thick chaparral and sage to try to contain the fire with tools and shovels, since pumping in water proved impossible.
The crash victims were part of a $6-million contract crew hired by SDG&E to place the ball-shaped warning markers on top of non-energized wires 200 feet above ground, said Liska, the manager of electric construction and maintenance for SDG&E.
Liska said the contractor, Haverfield Corp., was chosen for the job in part because of its safety record. The company had no work-related deaths since it began operating in the early 1980s, he said.
However, the company's luck with helicopters has been abysmal. It lost two of its four during Hurricane Andrew's recent assault on Florida. They were destroyed while parked in separate hangars during the storm.
The copter involved in Wednesday's crash was the company's last. The third was claimed in the Carlsbad crash. Execu
tives of the company could not be reached for comment.
"We're quite concerned that this sort of accident happens at all," Liska said, "but to have it happen while we are trying to make our system safe for aircraft is ironic."
The markers were being installed on all lines higher than 200 feet as a warning to low-flying planes and helicopters, under a recommendation from the Federal Aviation Administration.
Haverfield had done similar work for SDG&E in the past and began working on its present contract about a month ago, Liska said. Under that contract, the company had installed more than 600 markers and had about 200 to go.
"It's relatively dangerous any time you're hovering a helicopter," he added. "To hover close to a wire takes a skilled pilot. Haverfield has plenty of skilled pilots able to do that."
Swede Gamble, safety inspector for the FAA, said Haverfield "presents itself as a professional, well-run organization."
He said the official cause of Wednesday's crash will be determined by the National Transportation Safety Board.