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Kobe Bryant, daughter killed in helicopter crash; 7 others dead

Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watched a college basketball game between Connecticut and Houston in Storrs, Conn., last year.
Kobe Bryant and his daughter Gianna watched a college basketball game between Connecticut and Houston in Storrs, Conn., last year.Jessica Hill/AP

CALABASAS, Calif. — NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, and seven others were killed in a helicopter crash on a steep hillside in dense morning fog in Southern California on Sunday, his sudden death at age 41 touching off an outpouring of grief for a star whose celebrity transcended basketball.

The chopper went down in Calabasas, about 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Authorities said that nine people were aboard the helicopter and presumed dead. Bryant, an all-time basketball great who spent his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, was among the victims, a person familiar with the situation said.

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Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter Gianna also was killed, a different person familiar with the case said.

Also among the dead were John Altobelli, head coach of Southern California’s Orange Coast College baseball team, his wife, Keri, and daughter, Alyssa, who played on the same team as Bryant’s daughter, said his brother, Tony, who is the sports information director at the school.

Altobelli was the coach of the Brewster Whitecaps in the Cape Cod Baseball League for three years. He was the father of JJ Altobelli, a scout for the Red Sox.

Related: John Altobelli — former Cape League coach, father of Red Sox scout — dies with wife, daughter, in Kobe Bryant crash

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva would not confirm the identities of the victims Sunday afternoon pending official word from the coroner.

“God bless their souls,” Villanueva said at a news conference.

Bryant’s helicopter left Santa Ana shortly after 9 a.m. and circled for a time just east of Interstate 5, near Glendale. Air traffic controllers noted poor visibility around Burbank, just to the north, and Van Nuys, to the northwest.

After holding up the helicopter for other aircraft, they cleared the Sikorsky S-76 to proceed north along Interstate 5 through Burbank before turning west to follow US Route 101, the Ventura Highway.

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Shortly after 9:40 a.m., the helicopter turned again, toward the southeast, and climbed to more than 2,000 feet above sea level. It then descended and crashed into the hillside at about 1,400 feet, according to data from Flightradar24.

At the time of impact, the helicopter was flying at about 160 knots and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute, the Flightradar24 data showed.

Among other things, investigators will look at the pilot’s history, the chopper’s maintenance history, and the records of its owner and operator, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said at a news conference.

A Los Angeles Police Department spokesman said the department had grounded its helicopters in the morning because of the foggy conditions, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“The weather situation did not meet our minimum standards for flying,” Josh Rubenstein said.

Kurt Deetz, who used to ferry Bryant in a helicopter, told the Los Angeles Times that the crash was more likely caused by bad weather than engine or mechanical issues, he said. “The likelihood of a catastrophic twin engine failure on that aircraft — it just doesn’t happen,” he said.

Judging from a public record of the flight path and the wide debris field, Deetz said that it appears the helicopter was traveling very fast at the time of impact. After a 40-minute flight, Deetz added, the craft would have had about 800 pounds of fuel on board. “That’s enough to start a pretty big fire,” he said.

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News of the charismatic superstar’s death rocketed around the sports and entertainment worlds, with many taking to Twitter to register their shock, disbelief, and anguish.

Related: Celtics, other NBA stars offer condolences in wake of Kobe Bryant’s death

“Words can’t describe the pain I am feeling. I loved Kobe — he was like a little brother to me,’’ retired NBA great Michael Jordan said. “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.’’

NBA players were in tears during pregame warm-ups as crowds chanted “Kobe! Kobe!”

People were glued to their phones and TV screens all around the world as news of the crash spread and networks broke into programming with live coverage.

Thousands of people gathered to mourn Bryant outside the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Mourners in number 24 jerseys mixed with those in fancy dress arriving at the downtown arena for Sunday evening’s Grammy Awards.

People gather outside Staples Center after the death of Laker legend Kobe Bryant, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker)
People gather outside Staples Center after the death of Laker legend Kobe Bryant, Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Michael Owen Baker)AP/FR171390 AP via AP

People carried flowers and chanted “Kobe!” and “MVP!” under giant video screens showing Bryant’s smiling face.

“This is where we needed to be,” said Naveen Cheerath, 31.

Related: Watch Alicia Keys’ moving Grammys tribute to Kobe Bryant

Bryant retired in 2016 as the third-leading scorer in NBA history, finishing two decades with the Lakers as a prolific shot-maker with a sublime all-around game and a relentless competitive ethic.

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He held that spot in the league scoring ranks until Saturday night, when the Lakers’ James passed him for third place during a game in Philadelphia, Bryant’s hometown.

“Continuing to move the game forward (at)KingJames,” Bryant wrote in his last tweet. “Much respect my brother.”

President Trump and his predecessor, Barack Obama, expressed sadness; Obama, who had developed a friendship with Bryant borne out of several visits to the White House and their mutual love of the game, took note of the loss of Bryant’s daughter on Twitter.

“To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents,” he wrote.

Kobe Bryant held his daughter, Gianna, in June 2009 after defeating the Orlando Magic 99-86 in Game 5 to win the NBA basketball finals in Orlando, Fla.
Kobe Bryant held his daughter, Gianna, in June 2009 after defeating the Orlando Magic 99-86 in Game 5 to win the NBA basketball finals in Orlando, Fla. David J. Philli/AP/File/Associated Press

Bryant’s tenure was marred by scandal, when in 2003, Bryant was accused of raping a 19-year-old employee at a Colorado resort. He said the two had consensual sex, and prosecutors later dropped the felony sexual assault charge at the request of the accuser. The woman later filed a civil suit against Bryant that was settled out of court.

The National Transportation Safety Board was sending a team of investigators to the site. The NTSB typically issues a preliminary report within about 10 days that will give a rough summary of what investigators have learned. A ruling on the cause can take a year or more.

Colin Storm was in his living room in Calabasas when he heard what sounded to him like a low-flying airplane or helicopter.

“It was very foggy so we couldn’t see anything,” he said. “But then we heard some sputtering, and then a boom.”

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The fog cleared a bit, and Storm could see smoke rising from the hillside in front of his home.

Related: Looking back on Bryant’s most memorable moments in Boston

Daryl Osby, the Los Angeles County fire chief, said that the crash site was difficult to access and that firefighters had to hike to the area. Medical personnel rappelled to the site from a helicopter, but found no survivors, Osby said.

Firefighters worked to douse flames that spread through about a quarter acre of dry brush, Osby said.

Federal Aviation Administration spokesman Allen Kenitzer said the downed chopper was a Sikorsky S-76.

Among other things, investigators will look at the pilot’s history, the chopper’s maintenance history, and the records of its owner and operator, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said at a news conference.

“The S-76 is a pretty expensive, sophisticated helicopter. . . . It’s certainly a quality helicopter,” said Justin Green, an aviation attorney in New York who flew helicopters in the Marine Corps.

Green believes weather may have contributed to the crash. Pilots can become disoriented in bad weather, losing track of which direction is up. Green said a pilot flying an S-76 would be instrument-rated, meaning they could fly the helicopter without relying on visual cues from outside.