Pilot identified in helicopter crash that claimed Kobe Bryant's life

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Investigators work at the scene of a helicopter crash that killed former NBA star Kobe Bryant on January 26, 2020 in Calabasas, California. Nine people have been confirmed dead in the crash, among them Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter Gianna. Photo by David McNew/Getty Images.

CALABASAS, Calif. — Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant and eight others were killed Sunday when a luxury helicopter crashed along a hillside in Calabasas.

The crash, which occurred in the area of Las Virgenes Road and Willow Glen Street, was called in at 9:47 a.m., according to a watch commander at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department Lost Hills/Malibu station.

There were no survivors, according to sheriff’s officials, who added that the crash triggered a small fire that was quickly put out.

The Los Angeles County Coroner said it had a team of experts beginning body recovery and a massive refrigerated vehicle ready to transport the bodies.

The helicopter was a Sikorsky S-76B, Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer said.

The luxury aircraft was being flown by Ara Zobayan, who, according to records was an instrument-rated pilot — meaning he was qualified to fly in fog. Friends were mourning him on social media Sunday night, saying that he taught aspiring helicopter pilots to fly and that he was loved within the aviation community.

TMZ — which first reported Bryant’s death — said the helicopter belonged to Bryant, and that the group was en route to the Mamba Sports Academy in nearby Thousand Oaks for a basketball practice when the crash occurred.

Kurt Deetz, a former pilot for Island Express Helicopters, told the Los Angeles Times that the company owns the vehicle. He said flew Bryant from 2014 to 2016, and that 90% of the time, Bryant flew in the helicopter — a favorite of celebrities for its reputation of being comfortable and safe — which went down Sunday morning.

Deetz told the paper he logged more than 1,000 hours piloting the craft and said Bryant favored the model, comparing it to a “a Cadillac; a limousine,” that it was in “fantastic” condition, and that Island Express adheres to “a very good maintenance program.”

The helicopter took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County at 9:06 a.m., records show. The crash occurred in foggy conditions.

The Los Angeles Police Department had grounded its helicopter fleet Sunday morning due to the foggy conditions and didn’t fly until the afternoon, LAPD spokesman Josh Rubenstein said. The fog “was enough that we were not flying,” he said.

The department’s flight minimums require 2 miles of visibility and an 800-foot cloud ceiling, he said. When conditions allow, the LAPD typically flies two helicopters — in the San Fernando Valley, the other in the Los Angeles Basin, he said.

Sources told ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski that Bryant was on his way to a basketball game with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna when the helicopter crashed.

The latest victim to be identified by friends and family was Christina Mauser, an assistant basketball coach at Harbor Day School in Corona del Mar.

Her husband, Matthew Mauser, who was also a basketball coach at the school, posted on Facebook: “My kids and I are devastated. We lost our beautiful wife and mom today in a helicopter crash. Please respect our privacy. Thank you for all the well wishes they mean so much.”

The school put out a brief statement saying the campus is in mourning: “Harbor Day School is devastated by the news. We are mourning the loss of members of our community. Our first priority is the well-being of our students. As news is publicized, we will ensure that our support team is made available to assist and counsel our students. We appreciate your patience and understanding.”

Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa confirmed that baseball coach John Altobelli was one of the victims.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts that we announce the passing of Orange Coast College head baseball coach John Altobelli,” the college said. “He was a coach, a colleague, a mentor and a friend at OCC for 27 years.”

“John meant so much to not only Orange Coast College, but to baseball,” OCC Athletic Director Jason Kehler said.

“He truly personified what it means to be a baseball coach. The passion that he put into the game, but more importantly his athletes, was second to none — he treated them like family. Our deepest condolences go out to the Altobelli family during this time of tragedy.”

The coach’s brother Tony Altobelli, who is the sports director at OCC, told CNN that Altobelli’s wife Keri Altobelli and daughter Alyssa, a 13- year-old basketball player for the Mamba Academy, also died in the crash.

He told KTLA5 that the baseball team intends to play its first game, scheduled for Tuesday.

All of the victims on the flight were reportedly from Orange County.

The National Transportation Safety Board team was expected to arrive in California on Sunday evening to investigate the crash.

The helicopter company released the following statement: “We extend our sincerest condolences to all those affected by today’s Sikorsky S-76B accident in Calabasas, California. We have been in contact with the NTSB and stand ready to provide assistance and support to the investigative authorities and our customer.”

As the news spread, Lakers fans began gathering outside Staples Center, prompting the Los Angeles Police Department to remind the public that “the area around the Staples Center is closed due to the Grammys & fans will not be able to access the arena.”

One fan told KTLA, “I didn’t know what else to do, so I came here.”

Meanwhile, a slew of famous names from sports, entertainment and politics quickly reacted to Bryant’s death.

“Kobe Bryant was a giant who inspired, amazed, and thrilled people everywhere with his incomparable skill on the court — and awed us with his intellect and humility as a father, husband, creative genius, and ambassador for the game he loved,” Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti said.

“He will live forever in the heart of Los Angeles, and will be remembered through the ages as one of our greatest heroes. This is a moment that leaves us struggling to find words that express the magnitude of shock and sorrow we are all feeling right now, and I am keeping Kobe’s entire family in my prayers at this time of unimaginable grief.”

At 8:24 p.m., City Hall was illuminated in purple and gold light in honor of Bryant.

The Ferris wheel on the Santa Monica Pier also lit up with Lakers colors.

“We mourn the tragic and untimely death of a California icon and basketball legend, Kobe Bryant,” California Gov. Gavin Newsom said.”In his 20- year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, he made history with raw talent and unparalleled dedication that raised the bar and paved the way for a newer generation of players.

“Despite winning five NBA championships and two gold Olympic medals, and achieving countless accolades in the athletics world, he also helped improve the lives of youth and families through the Kobe Bryant and Vanessa Bryant Foundation, and was an outspoken advocate for combating homelessness through partnerships with organizations such as My Friend’s Place and Step Up on Second.

“Our deepest condolences go to his wife, family, colleagues, friends and fans. He was taken too soon and he will be missed.”

Shaquille O’Neal, who teamed with Bryant for their first three NBA championships, tweeted: “There’s no words to express the pain Im going through with this tragedy of loosing my neice Gigi & my brother @kobebryant. I love u and u will be missed. My condolences goes out to the Bryant family and the families of the other passengers on board. IM SICK RIGHT NOW”

Former Miami Heat star Dwyane Wade tweeted: “Nooooooooooo God please No!”

Former Boston Celtics star Paul Pierce — who battled Kobe twice in the NBA Finals — tweeted: “This is not real right now.”

“Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling,” basketball Hall of Famer Michael Jordan said. “I loved Kobe — he was like a little brother to me. We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force.”

Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong, owner of the Los Angeles Times, tweeted: “Heartbroken and numb. Please pray for Vanessa and the children. Rest In Peace Kobe. We will all miss you so much.”

Robert Iger, chairman and CEO of The Walt Disney Co., called Bryant “`a giant in sports and a person so full of life. Terrible news and so hard to process….”

Entertainer Cher tweeted: “My heart goes out to Kobe’s family, friends, fans. It’s so hard to deal with the death of a great star because we feel as if we knew them personally. Kobe Bryant was a great athlete and all of America will feel his loss. The world has lost a bright light.”

President Donald Trump also weighed in Sunday, tweeting that Bryant’s death was “terrible news!”

“Kobe Bryant, despite being one of the truly great basketball players of all time, was just getting started in life,” Trump tweeted. “He loved his family so much, and had such strong passion for the future. The loss of his beautiful daughter, Gianna, makes this moment even more devastating….

“Melania and I send our warmest condolences to Vanessa and the wonderful Bryant family. May God be with you all!”

And former President Barack Obama tweeted: “Kobe was a legend on the court and just getting started in what would have been just as meaningful a second act. To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents. Michelle and I send love and prayers to Vanessa and the entire Bryant family on an unthinkable day.”

Former President Bill Clinton issued a statement on behalf of himself and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, saying, they were “deeply saddened” by Bryant’s death, and that “Kobe Bryant lived a very large life in a very short time. But above all, he loved his family.”

Bryant lived in Newport Beach, where city officials sent out the following statement Sunday: “It is with heavy hearts that we say goodbye to Newport Beach resident and international sports legend Kobe Bryant. Our prayers are with his family, friends, colleagues and neighbors as our community grieves this sudden and devastating loss. Kobe leaves behind an unmatched legacy of excellence, on and off the court, that will not be forgotten.”

Bryant, one of the NBA’s all-time greats, last tweeted himself Saturday night, congratulating current Lakers superstar LeBron James on passing Bryant for third place on the league’s all-time scoring list.

“Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother,” the tweet said.

Former Lakers center Kareem Abdul-Jabbar — the NBA’s all-time leading scorer — said “Most people will remember Kobe as the magnificent athlete who inspired a whole generation of basketball players. But I will always remember him as a man who was much more than an athlete.”

The NBA Players Association tweeted: “We are stunned and devastated by the news of the sudden passing of Kobe Bryant. Words cannot express his impact on our players, the NBA and the game of basketball. This is a monumental loss for the entire basketball community and our hearts are quite simply broken. We send love an prayers out to his wife Vanessa and the entire family.”

Steve Ballmer, chairman of the Los Angeles Clippers, said: “The Clippers mourn the sudden and devastating loss of Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna. Kobe, an icon and an institution in this city and this sport, inspired teammates and opponents alike with his commitment, determination and drive. Kobe was a singular figure who left an indelible mark on the community and the world. His family, friends and the Lakers organization are in our thoughts and prayers. We will miss him.”

Kobe and his wife Vanessa, who wed in 2001, have four daughters, Natalia, 17, Gianna, 13, Bianca, 3, and Capri, 7 months.

Bryant, the son of former NBA star Joe “Jellybean” Bryant — joined the Lakers straight out of his Philadelphia-area high school in 1996. He led the Lakers to five NBA championships and was a perennial All-Star.

News of his death spread like wildfire across the Southland and the globe. At a Torrance restaurant without any televisions, the news still raced among patrons sitting at tables and standing in cashier lines. A young girl holding a cell phone broke the news to her mother. Total strangers shared the shocking news with each other, with many of them responding in disbelief, quickly reaching for their phones to search for information.

At a nearby sports bar, the typically raucous roar of conversation gave way to eerie quiet as the news flashed on TV screens. Customers and employees alike stopped to listen to the breaking news.

Apartment dwellers leaned from upstairs balconies to share the news with neighbors standing outside below.

In the aisle of a grocery store, a group of strangers gathered around to watch a news report on one shopper’s cell phone.

“I just can’t believe it,” one woman muttered as she watched, holding her young daughter against her hip.

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