(Adds names of two killed in crash, comments from mayor, witness and senator)
By Bryan Cohen
SEATTLE, March 18 (Reuters) - A news helicopter crashed and burst into flames in downtown Seattle on Tuesday, killing a pilot and a photographer on board and setting three cars on fire in a popular tourist area near the Space Needle, officials said.
The chopper appeared to have fallen to the street as it attempted to take off from a helipad at the top of a local television news station, Seattle Fire Department spokesman Kyle Moore told reporters.
Two people were found dead in the wreckage of the helicopter when emergency responders arrived at the scene, while the occupants of three vehicles that caught fire managed to escape their vehicles, Moore said. One was in critical condition.
Local television station KOMO, an ABC affiliate, said the aircraft was one of its news helicopters. Photos posted online by the station showed bright flames and towering smoke rising from cars at the scene after the aircraft came down.
"I saw it falling, it was coming down head first," Carmen Romero, who had been walking to catch a bus when the crash happened, told Reuters. "It hit the car, then flames went up."
Romero said she then saw a man engulfed in flames emerge from one of the three vehicles, waving his arms as he ran.
The crash, which left burning helicopter fuel streaming down the road and debris strewn on grass at the base of the Space Needle, occurred in a popular tourist area that also hosts a children's museum and the Pacific Science Center.
After the fire was extinguished, the charred vehicles with their windows blown out remained in the street, which was covered in fire-retardant foam with the tail of the chopper flung several yards away from its main frame.
The two people killed were pilot Gary Pfitzner, who worked for a company that operated the helicopter for the TV station, and photographer Bill Strothman, who had retired from KOMO and become a freelancer, KOMO reported on its website.
"At times like this we are reminded that the media, like many of us, are also public servants," said Seattle Mayor Ed Murray, who visited Strothman's adult children after their father's death.
U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, a Democrat from Washington state, said in a statement that the crash marked "an unimaginable loss for Seattle's journalism community."
'HANGING ON TO LIFE'
Of the people who were in the vehicles that were burned in the crash, a 37-year-old man who escaped his car was transported to a local hospital in critical condition with burns over half his body, Moore said.
"That person is hanging on to life," he said.
A woman who walked away from a second car that burned after the crash had made her way to a local police station and appeared to be in good shape, and the driver of a pickup truck scorched at the scene walked away unharmed, officials said.
The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration will investigate the crash, said Seattle police spokeswoman, Detective Renee Witt. She added that her agency would not probe the crash.
"It looked like it got hung up on some cables, and before you know it - boom! - it dropped, dropped to the street," witness Brian Cruz told KOMO.
Seattle officials will review regulations for helipads in the city, the mayor said.
The Space Needle and the Seattle Monorail, which runs near the crash scene and connects a downtown shopping mall to the Seattle Center tourist complex, were shut down to prevent people from looking down at the bodies, Murray said.
The site will be closed to traffic for up to five days due to the investigation, he said. (Additional reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Wash.; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)
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