SAN JOSE — A cargo helicopter hovering over a downtown office building lost control and crashed into flames on the rooftop Friday, killing the pilot and showering chunks of debris onto the street 13 stories below.
Four co-workers on the rooftop narrowly escaped injury. At least one said the pilot saved lives by steering the doomed chopper back over the building.
"I think he brought it back over the roof on purpose," said Ron Bilyeu, a technician who was working atop the First American Title building when the chopper went down and burst into flames.
"I think he knew he had lost it and was trying to minimize the damage. If you crash it into the side of the building, it would have been more than the pilot (killed)," Bilyeu said.
The building is in the heart of San Jose and is surrounded by apartment complexes, homes and other office buildings.
Chunks of concrete from rooftop pillars and pieces of the rotor blades from the Sikorsky S-58T twin-engine helicopter rained down on the ground but didn't strike anyone.
A fire on the top floor, triggered by the exploding chopper, took about 1 1/2 hours to extinguish. Police evacuated the building and cordoned off surrounding streets for several hours. Fire officials were unable to say when the building, which was without power, would reopen.
Battalion Chief Mike Burtch said the pilot, whose name wasn't immediately released, was the lone victim.
The helicopter had finished lifting heavy equipment used to service the building's air-conditioning system and was hovering when it suddenly tilted to one side and slammed into the rooftop, Fire Capt. Henry DeGroot said.
"There was no indication of trouble, although one of the ground crew said he heard the engine whine," DeGroot said.