HELICOPTER crash near Grand Canyon being investigated, as victims are prepared for burial

Monday, August 13th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

LAS VEGAS (AP) _ The cause of a deadly helicopter crash near the Grand Canyon remained a mystery as loved ones prepared to bury the five passengers from New York who were killed in the crash.

``We absolutely don't know what to do about this,'' said Rabbi Edgar Gluck, who knows the victims' families. ``It's such a tragedy. People in synagogue ... were looking at each other and not knowing what to say to each other.''

Pilot Kevin Innocenti, 27, of Henderson, Nev., and five tourists from tight-knit Orthodox Jewish communities in New York City were killed in Friday's crash. The helicopter went down near the canyon's western end, 60 miles east of Las Vegas.

Early Monday, the bodies of the five tourists were put on a plane to New York after being examined at the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office in Phoenix. The office declined to release any information about the results of the exams, conducted to identify the bodies and determine the precise causes of death.

Funerals for the tourists were scheduled for Monday in New York.

The sole survivor remained in critical condition Sunday. She had suffered burns over 80 percent of her body, said Pat Morris, a spokeswoman for University Medical Center in Las Vegas. A friend identified her as Chana Daskal, of New York.

The tourists were part of a group of about 20 friends and relatives on a four-day vacation at the Bellagio hotel-casino in Las Vegas, according to Steven Golomb, a friend of the victims who was on the trip.

Officials did not release the names of the passengers who were killed, but Golomb identified them as David Daskal, Shiya Lichtenstein, Avi and Barbara Wajsbaum, and Aryeh Zvi Fastag.

Golomb said 12 people from the group went in two helicopters for the day trip.

``Two wives are left without husbands because they were on the other helicopter,'' he said.

The victims had seven children between them, Gluck said.

The group had taken a tour that flies over Hoover Dam, Lake Mead and the 5,600-foot Grand Wash Cliffs before descending toward the Grand Canyon's western rim, according to a spokeswoman for Papillon Grand Canyon Helicopters of Las Vegas, which operated the helicopter.

Company procedure required the group members to be weighed and separated into two helicopters. Steve Johnson, a spokesman for the sheriff's department in Mohave County, Ariz., said it was possible some of the passengers had switched helicopters, noting that passenger lists filed with the company did not match who was actually in each helicopter, the Las Vegas Review-Journal reported Sunday.

The American Eurocopter AS350 helicopter crashed and burned about 3,700 feet up the Grand Wash Cliffs, a desolate roadless area popular with tourist helicopters because of its signature red rock formations.

National Transportation Safety Board officials said determining the cause of the accident would be difficult because the helicopter had no recording device on board when it went down. Investigators were examining debris from the accident at a hangar in Boulder City, Nev.

An initial probe found the helicopter had never had mechanical problems and had stopped for gas at an airport seven miles east of the crash site just before the accident.

A pilot in the helicopter following the one that crashed said he lost sight of the helicopter for a moment and then saw a plume of smoke coming from the ground, said Jeff Rich, a senior NTSB air safety investigator.

Federal investigators said Sunday there were no emergency calls from the helicopter before it went down.

NTSB records show Papillon has been involved in four helicopter crashes during the last three years along the Colorado River, which cuts through the Grand Canyon.

The crash was the deadliest canyon tour accident since 1995, when a plane crashed while trying to return to Grand Canyon Airport, killing eight people.