North Versailles, Murrysville families still waiting for report on 2011 chopper crash that killed couple
A Hawaiian honeymoon should have been the beginning for the bride who grew up in Murrysville and the groom from North Versailles.
In a storybook romance, the two engineers met at work, Westinghouse's nuclear division in Cranberry, and were married atop Mt. Washington in Pittsburgh.
Five days later, Nicole Bevilacqua-Abel, 28, and Michael Abel, 25, paid $273.75 apiece to take a 45-minute aerial tour over Molokai to see the island's sea cliffs and Hawaii's tallest waterfall.
A couple from Toronto — Stuart Robertson, 50, and Eva Birgitta Wannersjo, 47 — joined them as they boarded the helicopter at Kahului Airport on Maui.
It was the third tour of the day for pilot Nathan Cline, 30.
He took off at 11:44 a.m. on Nov. 10, 2011.
A half-hour later, Puko resident Walter Paleka heard a “woop, woop” sound. He looked up and saw the Blue Hawaiian Helicopters aircraft plummet “straight down” a mountainside. Pieces flew from the tail section.
Rain squalls with high winds were sweeping over the island.
Off-duty firefighter Jay Duquette said a squall had just passed when the aircraft lost altitude. He heard an explosion and saw a fireball. Resident Floyd Kapuni said it looked like the pilot lost control in a squall with “big rain.”
The helicopter crashed one-quarter of a mile away from an elementary school. Rescuers who rode ATVs into the brush-covered terrain found no survivors.
Nearly 30 months later, David and Marcia Abel of North Versailles and Bruce and Cheryl Bevilacqua of Murrysville do not know what caused the crash.
Investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board have not issued a factual report about the fatal accident, which is needed before the board can rule on its cause.
The parents, who have filed wrongful death lawsuits in U.S. District Court against Blue Hawaiian and the manufacturer of the helicopter, referred questions to their attorneys.
“Here were two young, successful people, obviously in love, who had everything ahead of them, starting a new chapter in their lives, and then tragedy strikes,” said Pittsburgh attorney John Gismondi, who represents Nicole's heirs.
Attorney Mark Grace, who represents Michael's estate, said “Nicole and Michael were both brilliant, successful engineers with bright futures.”
The NTSB said a factual report is being reviewed for release “in the near future.”
“The final report listing the cause of the crash would not by any means take away either family's pain, but it certainly would provide the families information they have anxiously awaited. It's frustrating in a sense that they want things to be concluded and finally have a sense of what actually happened, but this has taken much longer than anyone anticipated,” Gismondi said.
Grace said factual reports generally are issued within six to nine months after a crash, with the board determining a probable cause about three months later. The families retained experts to examine the wreckage, which investigators have not released, he said.
Keith Mackey, an aviation safety consultant from Ocala, Fla., with 45 years' experience as a flight instructor, said the delay is “really very unusual.”
“It's been typically my experience you can expect at least the whole factual report within 12 to 15 months, at most. Twenty-nine months is definitely unusual, and delaying to turn over the wreckage ... is strange, too, because it has been my experience it's done immediately after the NTSB lets its own experts examine it,” Mackey said.
Former NTSB investigator Gene Doub of Oklahoma City said the crash deserves “the highest level of attention” because five lives were lost. He was an investigator for the USAir Flight 427 crash in Hopewell that killed 132 on Sept. 8, 1994, as it approached Pittsburgh International Airport.
“When I worked there, if it was 12 months and there was no factual report yet, you would have been hauled before the NTSB administration and there would have been a bumblebee put under your blanket,” Doub said.
Dennis Hogenson, acting deputy chief of the NTSB'S Western Pacific Region, acknowledged the inquiry has taken longer than usual.
“Investigating this crash, we have done an extensive amount of testing and research. Unfortunately, this helicopter was manufactured in France and because of that, a lot of the testing has to be done in France,” he said. “That means a lot of the pieces recovered that need to be tested have to be shipped to and from there, and it's not as easy as dropping the material in a UPS parcel.”
Along with extensive documentation, “you have to deal with not only one, but multiple government agencies and, unfortunately, it has taken a lot of time,” Hogenson said.
Blue Hawaiian settled for an undisclosed amount with Robertson's estate, which has a suit pending against the manufacturer. “Stuart Robertson was an innocent passenger and his family did not deserve to suffer further grief,” said family attorney Michael Slack of Austin, Texas.
Violeta Escobar Cline, the pilot's widow, sued European Aeronautic Defense and Space Co., which manufactured the Eurocopter EC 130 B4, and Nevada Helicopter Leasing, which owned the helicopter, claiming design and manufacturing defects. Unlike helicopters with a visible tail rotor, the Eurocopter has a protected tail rotor called a Fenestron.
Preliminary NTSB reports indicate experts examined pieces of the tail section found about 100 yards from the main wreckage. Cline “was heading down the steep volcanic mountain slope with the helicopter tail toward the back of the mountain,” when the tail “clipped the mountainside,” Grace said.
In December, Blue Hawaiian Helicopters was acquired by Denver-based Air Methods Corp., the nation's largest air medical transportation company. A Blue Hawaiian representative did not return a call seeking comment.
Last year, the NTSB cited the Molokai crash when it recommended installing an aviation camera system throughout the Hawaiian islands to warn sightseeing tour pilots about “adverse weather phenomena such as rain showers, rain squalls, mist, fog, heavy clouds and areas of low visibility.”
A similar system in Alaska cut fatalities by 53 percent, it reported to the Federal Aviation Administration.
Paul Peirce is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-850-2860 or firstname.lastname@example.org.