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Two die in helicopter crane crash

A stunt pilot and one other person were killed after a helicopter collided with a high-rise crane in central London and plunged more than 700 feet to the busy streets below.

Pete Barnes, who has piloted helicopters for movies such as Die Another Day, was alone in the aircraft amid thick cloud when it clipped the structure on top of one of Europe's largest skyscrapers.

The AgustaWestland 109 Power hurtled to the ground and exploded into flames just yards from Vauxhall Station, claiming the lives of Mr Barnes and another person on the ground. A total of 12 people were also injured, including one person with a broken leg, although police said it was a "miracle" more were not injured.

Kevin Hodgson, who worked alongside Mr Barnes on life-saving missions with the Great North Air Ambulance (GNAA), said: "Pete was as good a guy as you can imagine and one of the best pilots I've ever had the pleasure of flying with."

In the aftermath of the crash, questions were raised over the safety of aircraft flying over London, especially as the number of high-rise blocks being built increases.

But sources said lights fitted to the crane were in place and were checked twice daily - including on Tuesday.

Commander Neil Basu, of the Metropolitan Police, said: "It was something of a miracle that this was not many, many times worse."

But in one case of good fortune, it was reported that the crane driver avoided near-certain death because he was late for his shift and had not reached his cabin.

Witnesses described hearing a loud bang and a flash of light as debris scattered across the sky and the twin-engine aircraft crashed near Wandsworth Road.

Video footage and photos flooded on to social media sites revealing chaotic scenes, burning wreckage and vehicles charred by flames.

Eyewitness and mother-of-five Sharon Moore, who lives on the nearby Wyvil Estate, said she saw the aircraft slice through the crane "as if it was a piece of paper".

She said: "The helicopter did not seem to know which way to turn and then it just dropped, it sliced, screeching into the metal."

Traffic chaos ensued in the wake of the incident as several roads were partially closed as well as Vauxhall tube, railway and bus stations.

Staff at Redhill Aerodrome, in Surrey confirmed the helicopter left the site at 7.35am, while the owner of London Heliport said Mr Barnes requested to land at one of its sites via Heathrow air traffic control.

But the Heliport never established contact with the pilot and shortly before 8am the emergency services started to receive hundreds of calls reporting the crash.

London Fire Brigade station manager Bruce Grain, one of the first firefighters at the scene, said it "was absolute chaos" as residents were evacuated but revealed the fire was put out within 20 minutes.

Six fire engines, four fire rescue units, a number of other specialist vehicles and 88 firefighters attended the scene of the crash, a few hundred yards from the future American embassy site. Around 60 police officers also attended the scene,

The eight-seater aircraft is owned by Cornwall-based Castle Air but was leased to another firm RotorMotion, which is based at Redhill Aerodrome.

Captain Philip Amadeus, managing director of RotorMotion, an executive helicopter charter business, said the aircraft was on a commercial flight to Elstree.

He said: "Our main priority now is for the family of the pilot and we extend our greatest sympathy to the friends and relatives of those who have died and been injured."

Mr Barnes, who also flew aircraft for films Tombraider II and Saving Private Ryan, had around 9,000 hours of flying time, including 3,500 hours on the type of craft involved in the incident.

A relative who answered the intercom at Mr Barnes's home in the small rural village of Goddard's Green near Mortimer, Berkshire, said she did not want to comment and asked that the family's privacy was respected.

Neighbour David Sinclair, 66, said: "We saw the helicopter come and go every now and again, as he had a helipad in the garden and parked it there. The accident is very sad. It's unbelievable, really."

In 2004, he carried out a daring rescue of a motorist from a flooded ford in County Durham while working for the GNAA.

More recently, he had been flying the Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance (WNAA). Andy Williamson, chief executive of the WNAA, said: "Pete had worked with us for many years and will be greatly missed. Our thoughts are with his family and with all the families affected by this tragedy."

RotorMotion's website has pictures of famous passengers including David Cameron, the Dalai Lama, Simon Cowell and Cheryl Cole.

The business has been operating for 15 years and describes itself as a "boutique helicopter charter business".

On its website, RotorMotion says: "Our helicopters have twin turbine engines and are certified to fly at night, over water and in cloud. Relax in the knowledge that both pilot and machine are fully instrument qualified to fly in poor weather conditions."

Paul Knightley, a forecaster at MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said London City Airport was reporting a cloudbase of just 100ft (30.5m) at the time of the accident.

The Civil Aviation Authority said helicopter regulations for flying over London included "requirements for lighting on tall structures".

The authority said: "In addition, where appropriate, very tall structures are also notified to pilots for flight planning purposes, as was the case with the crane that was involved in this morning's accident."

James Harvard, 36, who has a view of the crane from his home, claimed he had contacted the Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) in October, saying he could not see lights on the crane.

The web designer said today: "It was the fog that drew my attention to the danger because the structure of the crane was half obscured."

He said he tweeted his concerns to MPSinthesky and received the reply: "All crane above a certain height have to be lit and those that aren't are reported and fined."

The police force and fire brigade are working with other agencies including the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) and the Civilian Aviation Authority (CAA).

Mayor of London Boris Johnson said lighting of cranes and tall buildings will be reviewed, but that it would be "premature" to second guess the investigation into today's helicopter smash.

Prime Minister David Cameron paid tribute to the emergency services. He said: "The whole House will wish to join with me in sending their thanks to the emergency services for their rapid and professional response to this situation."

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