On the 10-year anniversary of the infamous TV news helicopter crash over Steele Indian School Park, colleagues and family members of the victims reflect on the tragedy that changed Valley newsgathering – and their lives – forever.

News Chopper Four

Written by David Leibowitz Category: People Issue: August 2017
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Illustration by Jon Stich.

A few minutes past noon on July 27, 2007, Phoenix police scanners squawked to life in newsrooms across the Valley. The story was what local TV news people call “great television”: a high-speed police chase involving a perp at the wheel of a stolen dually pickup truck. Christopher Jones, a 23-year-old convicted felon, had rammed a cop car and run a red light in the heart of Downtown. Now police were chasing Jones north toward Steele Indian School Park in midtown Phoenix.

Across the Valley at Scottsdale Airpark, Craig Smith, 47, powered up the KNXV-ABC15 news helicopter, just as he’d done hundreds of times before. Usually, Molly, his beloved West Highland terrier, would accompany him on flights. But on this day, perhaps due to the urgency of breaking news, he left her in the hangar.

Smith – who’d worked as a pilot-reporter for ABC15 since 2005 – had been a licensed pilot for 17 years, logging more than 8,000 hours in the air. Smith’s partner was another news veteran, photographer Rick Krolak, 55. A devoted family man with three sons, Krolak was having an awful day. His 5-year-old granddaughter, Kiana, had died the night before after suffering complications from a congenital birth defect.

According to the official record compiled by federal aviation inspectors, at 12:32 p.m. – about 10 minutes after Smith and Krolak departed Scottsdale – pilot Scott Bowerbank and photographer Jim Cox followed them Downtown in a chopper licensed to KTVK-News Channel 3. 

Like Smith, Bowerbank, 42, was an accomplished pilot. Hired to fly backup for 3TV airborne star reporter Bruce Haffner, he’d held his commercial license and his flight instructor certification since 1987, logging more than 14,000 hours aloft. His battery-mate, 37-year-old Cox, was also seasoned, having shot scores of stories from the sky. The son of a B-29 bomber pilot, Cox loved flying and was planning on becoming a helicopter pilot himself one day.

Fourteen minutes later, seconds after 12:46 p.m., all four men would be dead, victims of the first and only fatal airborne collision of TV news helicopters in U.S. history. 

High above Steele Indian School Park, the helicopters collided rotor-to-rotor, plummeting to Earth like wounded birds and exploding in a spectacle of devastation that left first responders – and, later, then-Police Chief Jack Harris, a street cop and SWAT commander for three decades – deeply shaken. “If you saw it, there was just hardly anything there,” Harris recalls. “It was the frame and part of the helicopter. As I recall, you couldn’t even tell there were two helicopters. It was like they just landed together and exploded.”

Ten years to the month after the tragedy, July 27th still echoes for the loved ones, friends and colleagues of the men who perished that day. There was Smith, the cocksure dog lover; and Bowerbank, who could wow you with stories about flying celebrities like Mick Jagger and Jeff Gordon during their visits to Phoenix. People still reminisce about Cox, the bachelor who was so good with tools that he remodeled his own house in the Coronado neighborhood; and Krolak, the grieving family man who followed his granddaughter so quickly into the afterlife. 

A milestone such as this has a way of coaxing those memories, and the buried throb of longing and loss, back to the surface. It also serves as a reflective surface upon which to view the aftermath – the shock and disbelief, the lawsuits and recriminations, and the shift in TV newsgathering policies. The healing, or lack thereof.  

Ten years have passed, but people will never forget the victims – or the day that brought the churning Valley media machine to a standstill. 

The YouTube video has garnered 1.7 million views. 

It captures Smith’s final conversation with ABC15 anchor Rebecca Thomas. The pair, veterans of covering many car chases, sound all business. You hear it in their voices as Jones, the carjacker – who later received 25 years in prison for his crime spree – veers into a construction site.

Thomas: “It looks like they’re just going to let this thing play out.”

Smith: “He has stopped. This may be the end of this thing.”

Krolak’s camera catches Jones dashing into another truck. A Phoenix police cruiser moves in. Up runs an officer, pistol pointed. Jones swerves and flees. 

Smith utters, “Oh, Je–” Then metallic grinding swallows his audio. Krolak’s video disintegrates into static. The broadcast returns to Thomas. She says, “We don’t know what has just happened right there,” before tossing to commercials. 

The YouTube video ends with Thomas, uncertain but composed, mouthing, “What just happened?” The next few minutes were a blur, Thomas recalls, everyone in the newsroom desperate to turn the screech and static into something that made sense. Then Thomas noticed the TV monitors that dominated the newsroom.

“It was a four-screen [on which] you could see all the stations in the Valley,” Thomas, now an anchor for a FOX affiliate in Austin, Texas, recalls. “I noticed that our station was in commercial break and so was Channel 3, but 12 and FOX had just burning wreckage covering the monitor. Then I knew what happened. It was surreal.”

Thomas had been at the station for eight months. She had flown with Smith a week prior. Five minutes later, back live, she was joined by anchorman Jon Du Pre. Du Pre, too, had flown often with Smith and worked alongside Krolak. The anchors set aside their shock and shifted into live journalism mode to report the deaths of their colleagues. 

Such stories – accompanied by varying degrees of survivor’s guilt – are almost universal among former and current 3TV and ABC15 journalists who worked for those stations in July 2007. Some have asked not to be quoted, possibly an echo of legal handwringing that prevailed at the two stations following the accident, or simply due to locker-room-style honor codes. Some freely share their recollections – like Haffner, the star airborne reporter at 3TV, who would have been the one in News Chopper 3 if the truck thief Jones had started his crime spree a few hours earlier.

On his last day, Bowerbank got to play one last practical joke on the Valley’s most recognizable chopper guy, when he and Haffner’s son, Jake, taped a note to Haffner’s back that read, “My dad can’t hear me,” a jibe at how years of flying had compromised Haffner’s hearing.

Haffner headed out to start his weekend. Ninety minutes later, Bowerbank and Cox ascended for their final flight in News Chopper 3, hurtling toward the crash that also took Krolak, another of Haffner’s 
closest friends. It was a collision Haffner says he never saw coming.

“We were in the air with four other TV station helicopters every day,” he explains. “I wouldn’t have flown if I thought my life was at risk. I knew the other pilots. We always talked on the… air-to-air frequency, the helicopter radio. We always told each other what our intentions were… I have four kids. I wasn’t going to risk my life flying a helicopter because I liked it if I thought it was unsafe.”

The tragedy represented – and still represents – an agonizing conundrum for Valley journalists. On one hand, they are journalists, and hunger to cover breaking news. On the other, the deceased men were their friends and colleagues. Being spared the duty of covering the crash was regarded as a dark blessing by those who weren’t on the scene.  

Don Hooper was not granted that blessing. Flying SkyFox10, Hooper was the last pilot to join the scrum of TV news choppers over Steele Indian School Park that morning. He recalls joining the fray about two minutes before the crash. While Hooper’s cameraman zeroed in on the police chase, Hooper focused on the pilots surrounding him – his hangar buddies, his lunch partners, his friends. Hooper had known Bowerbank for 20 years. The two had worked side by side as flight instructors. Hooper and Smith, gearheads both, frequently talked about their passion for car shows.

Then Bowerbank and Smith met blade to blade and, seven seconds later, both aircraft were gone.

Hooper’s depiction of the initial collision differs from the one ultimately presented by lawyers and family members of the 3TV victims, but he recalls it thusly: “When (Bowerbank) hit Craig, the Channel 3 helicopter, because of the torque, just snap-rolled hard to the right and basically cut its tail off and started to fall.” 

Hooper believes the violence of the snap-roll must have knocked out or disoriented Bowerbank and Cox. He never heard their voices during the ordeal. Instead, Hooper’s headset broadcast the last moments of his friends’ lives in the ABC15 helicopter.

“It’s not like a scream you hear on TV or in the movies, really,” Hooper says. “It’s the real deal. Nobody could imitate that, I don’t care how good they act.”

The 20 minutes following the crash remain a blank for Hooper. He barely recalls speaking on air with anchor Ron Hoon – though he did speak: Video of the immediate aftermath of the crash from FOX 10 include audio of Hooper gasping for breath and repeating “Oh, Jesus,” and “Oh my God,” over and over as he struggles to make out who collided with Channel 3. And though Hooper knows the story of his return flight to Scottsdale, the shock that left him lying on the tarmac like putty has left the details elusive.

“The only thing I remember saying was, ‘It’s amazing, it’s a miracle, that this didn’t happen over like a school or a hospital,’” Hooper says. “We were never over an open area like that.”

It was a silver lining for the city of Phoenix, but cold comfort for the family members, who soon dried their eyes and asked, “What happened up there?”

 

The official National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) report of the accident spans 66 clinical pages and took 17 months to complete, full of altitudes, acronyms and measurements.

Still, it sometimes reads like a Hollywood action script. The report sets this scene: A police helicopter and news copters from five Valley TV stations swarm the sky between 470 feet and 1,170 feet above Indian School Road. Meanwhile, down on the street, suspect Jones abandons his stolen truck to steal a second vehicle near Second and Clarendon avenues. While the photographers shoot video from the back seat, Bowerbank and Smith multi-task furiously in the cockpit, handling flying, communications on three different radios, eyeballing the choppers around them and, at times, narrating the police chase for viewers. 

A single minute of this drama underscores how fluid the scene above Phoenix was that day – five news reporter-pilots in close proximity, unable to rely on air traffic controllers to monitor the other choppers and operating under “visual flight rules.” A self-governing herd. 

As the report’s official transcript illustrates, there was significant chatter between Smith and Bowerbank in the minutes leading up to the crash. They seem, for lack of a better word, tangled. 

At 12:41:22 p.m., Channel 15’s Smith asks “Where’s (Channel) 3? Like how far? Oh. Jeez.” 

Four seconds later, Smith radios Bowerbank: “Three, I’m right over you. 15’s over top of you.”

Bowerbank at 12:41:30: “Who you over the top of?”

Smith at 12:41:33: “You… You’re... I’m over the top of you.”

Channel 3’s Bowerbank immediately tells Smith, “OK, thanks. I’m at 2,000 (feet).” Then, 30 seconds later, he tells Smith, “OK, Craig, I got you in sight.” Smith replies, “Got you as well.”

That was the end of their interaction until the two aircraft met blade to blade less than five minutes later. The crash, the thousand-foot drop to the ground and the explosion and fire that followed left pieces of the two machines scattered in a debris field 2,160 feet long and 560 feet wide.

“The cause of death for the… pilots and photographers was multiple blunt force injuries,” the NTSB report reads.

The FOX 10 pilot, Hooper, backs up his version of the collision – in which 3TV’s Bowerbank rises up and “hits” the ABC15 chopper – by citing altitude figures from the NTSB report, figures that show Bowerbank flying below Smith in the moments before the crash. It represents one of three possible cause-and-effect scenarios for the accident.

Another was offered by the Bowerbank and Cox families and their attorneys at a press conference on the second anniversary of the crash. Emboldened by a preliminary NTSB report that indicated the 3TV helicopter was stationary while ABC15’s was maneuvering at impact, the attorneys commissioned computer animation (still available online) that shows Smith’s helicopter plowing into the Channel 3 chopper from behind. A subsequent lawsuit against the Smith estate and U.S. Helicopters Incorporated – which owned the ABC15 helicopter and employed Smith – included strong language, stating that U.S. Helicopters “knew or should have known... that defendant Craig Smith was a reckless, dangerous pilot.”

The Smith family countersued, but the tangle of lawsuits against each other, the TV stations and the helicopter company were eventually dismissed, according to Maricopa County court documents.
Tellingly, the Krolak family – on behalf of youngest son Colton Krolak – also filed a wrongful death suit, but not against 3TV or its pilot. The defendants were the estate of Smith and U.S. Helicopters – the ABC15-affiliated side. That lawsuit was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed dollar amount.

The third scenario: neither pilot was solely at fault. The final NTSB report ultimately assigned responsibility for the accident to both pilots without determining who hit whom. As the federal investigators put it: “The Safety Board concludes that the channel 3 and 15 helicopters collided because one or both pilots lost awareness of the other helicopter’s position.”

Scott Bowerbank
Pilot 
KTVK/3TV
Jim Cox
Photographer
KTVK/3TV
Rick Krolak
Photographer
KNXV/ABC15
Craig Smith
Pilot 
KNXV/ABC15
 

Chief Harris briefly considered charging truck-thief Jones with capital murder for committing a felony that led to the four men’s deaths, but ultimately Jones was charged only with his direct crimes – 33 counts of criminal damage, aggravated assault, endangerment and similar charges. He’s currently serving a 25-year sentence.

The recovery process has taken a multitude of forms for the friends and family members of the fallen journalists. 

Colton Krolak, pictured at the crash site memorial at Steele Indian School Park, wears a cross filled with his father’s ashes. Photo by Mirelle Inglefield.
A still image from the video. Rendering courtesy Kitchen Sink Studios.

What Haffner calls a “black cloud,” lasted for weeks. He found solace and strength in the letters, cards and emails he received from viewers – and in his desire to honor his friends. “I always say that they’re still flying up there with me,” Haffner says. “And I want to honor them by doing what I loved, doing what they loved… Somehow, they’re up there looking down, going, ‘Man, he’s still flying that thing. He’s still having fun. Isn’t that great?’”

Hooper is less sanguine. The miraculous element of this crash – that no one on the ground was hurt – remains for him the day’s single saving grace. His career as a pilot-reporter ended the following January, when FOX laid him off in a round of budget cuts. Hooper says he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after witnessing the crash. Even so, he went back to flying helicopters for a living, working these days as a medical response pilot. But his love for flying? Gone. 

“I have no choice,” Hooper says. “I don’t know how to do anything else. I have not liked flying ever since. As a matter of fact, if I could do something different, I absolutely would.”

For many in Valley news, the tragedy triggered an agonizing reappraisal of how journalists chase adrenaline-pumping but ultimately trivial stories. Du Pre, the ABC15 anchor who covered the aftermath of the crash, now works as an anchor/reporter in Shreveport, Louisiana. He last thought about the crash only days ago, while watching a drone shoot aerial footage that once would have required a helicopter. “I was actually angry at a certain point sitting there [the other day] at all of us for being so… I don’t know… foolish and wasteful,” the newsman says. “For a few minutes of video, of television? All of those people put their lives at risk. For what? To get a live shot.”

Redesigning policies governing TV news helicopters became a cause célèbre – and, one might imagine, post-traumatic therapy – for Alan Cox, the father of the 3TV cameraman. Calling for the combination pilot/reporter position to be eliminated, the former bomber pilot told media in 2008, “As a pilot, I know the confusion that can take place in the cockpit, monitoring multiple radio frequencies and communicating with the ground and with the station.”

For better or worse, aerial news in the Valley has certainly changed since the accident. For starters, the recession cut the number of news helicopters in Phoenix to two. Haffner, who now owns his own company and aircraft, flies for Channels 3 and 5. Channels 15, 12 and 10 pool resources, contracting with North Carolina-based U.S. Helicopters to handle aerial coverage.

Haffner, for one, no longer reports and flies simultaneously. Instead, while a pilot handles the helicopter from the front seat, Haffner chats with the audience using a mounted camera to beam his face across the airwaves. Splitting the pilot and reporter roles came amid a number of safety recommendations – including more frequent air-to-air communication and greater separation between news-gathering aircraft – made by the NTSB and industry groups in the years post-crash. “We worked with the NTSB and the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration] to come up with guidelines about how to do this safely,” Haffner says. “We’ve all adopted the guidelines. Here in Phoenix, nobody pilot-reports anymore. There’s no rule against it, but we don’t do it.”

For the families, adjusting to the post-accident world has taken more spiritual forms. Leslie Cox was in Austin, Texas, when the phone call from her sister Jenny came in mid-afternoon on that day 10 years ago. Jenny had caught a national news story about a mid-air helicopter collision in Phoenix. Their little brother, the “full throttle” kid as the family called Jimmy, was in Phoenix. The flowers he’d sent for Leslie’s birthday had only just arrived.

Soon, they got the confirmation they’d been dreading.

About 100 hours later, a joint memorial for Cox and Bowerbank attracted a crowd so large, it required two churches. Those who loved Cox came bearing tales of his passion for his job and his eternal quest for the perfect shot and exactly the right bite of sound. They talked about the historic house he remodeled board by board and the hours he spent with a wrench in his hands, huddled under a car or working on his sailboat.
“It was such a tragedy that we just couldn’t fathom it,” Leslie Cox says. “We couldn’t wrap our brains around it… We were a very close family, and he was the baby of the family. So we just knew we had to do something. We couldn’t let him go.”

Their need to hang on to Jimmy became the James Alan Cox Foundation for Student Photojournalists. Founded in 2008, this nonprofit has provided cameras, scholarships and internships at Channel 3 to high school and college students. So far, Leslie says, the foundation has provided a boost to 97 kids from 27 states – and a much-needed sense of purpose for the Cox family.

“To be honest, I don’t really know if my parents could have survived [without the foundation],” Leslie says of her father, 81, and her mom, 79. “I mean, they’re tough people, but it was so bad for them. I think the foundation gets them through. And me, too... This really helps us. Jimmy’s spirit lives on.”

Colton Krolak grapples with the same feelings. He was 14 years old the day his dad went from being a journalist to being the story. Now 24, the youngest of Rick Krolak’s three boys shares his father’s fascination with news: A graduate of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, Colton has contemplated following Rick into the business. But lately, he’s been applying to Valley police departments instead.

“I’d like to be a police officer, but there’s something about journalism I’ve always liked,” Colton says. “I like how it makes me feel close to my dad. Right now, I’m doing some soul-searching, kind of trying to figure out what’s best for me.”

Working through conflicting emotions has occupied the youngest Krolak for 10 years now. He talks about the five stages of grief like someone who has made the journey over and over. The acceptance periods last longer each time, he says, but then Colton drives past a restaurant where he and his dad loved to eat, or another July 27th anniversary arrives on the calendar. 

“It’s just a constant process of going from acceptance to ‘Can I please have my dad back?’ to anger at the fact that he was taken away,” he says. “Still, it doesn’t do a whole lot of good to feel bitter about anything.”
Perhaps that’s true because his father – Mr. One Liner, as he was called, the man who in just 14 years taught Colton how to be a man – never trafficked in bitterness. Krolak did family, friends and news, in that order. Baseball games, field hockey – whatever the sport, Krolak clocked out from the station to coach or to see his youngest boy play.

“That’s what I really miss most,” Colton says. “Him being there, him being my friend. He was an amazing father.”

Like everyone who lost a loved one that day, Colton is legally bound not to discuss the four lawsuits filed in the aftermath of July 27, 2007, or the confidential settlements that followed. The court files reveal a thicket of litigation: families suing TV stations, the station’s corporate owners, the helicopter company who employed Bowerbank and the estate of Craig Smith. 

To hear Colton tell it, whatever happened in courtrooms or in the sky pales in comparison to the presence of his father in his life, even after Krolak’s death.

“It’s been a decade now, and there hasn’t been a single day where we have not thought about my dad,” Colton says. “My mom and I will talk about him all the time, share stories. I’m still learning things about my dad that I didn’t know. I love that. I think it’s just so great that even after all this time, he can be so influential in all of our lives.”

So on this July 27th and every July 27th thereafter, the survivors plan to gather near the memorial in Steele Indian School Park – despite, evidently, their legal battles against each other. They will say kind words, exchange hugs and tell stories amid tears and much laughter. Then they will go back home, where sometimes it feels like one day the unfathomable might somehow happen yet again.

“One of the things that we like to say is that it feels like my dad’s just going to walk in the door like nothing’s wrong,” Colton says. “Kind of like a vacation thing. It does feel like that, that someday he’s going to walk in. I don’t know how, but that’s exactly how it feels to me.”

Look-Live
How a Phoenix branding agency re-created the 3TV/ABC15 helicopter crash.

It is two minutes and 36 seconds long, and harrowing to the last. Currently viewable on YouTube, the computer-animated depiction of the July 27, 2007, TV news helicopter accident is an impressively polished piece of forensic video. Commissioned by Phoenix attorney Pat McGroeder and his clients in 2008 to present their version of the accident, it is nearly photorealistic – full of camera zooms, splintering metal shards and other agonizing, life-like details.

The video was produced by Kitchen Sink Studios, a Downtown Phoenix jack-of-all-trades media agency more accustomed to working with craft breweries  than air traffic experts. Kitchen Sink founding partner Nick Hower walked us through the process of modeling and re-creating the crash.

• Radar data: Hower and his team drew conclusions from air traffic experts with “years of experience and credentials” analyzing radar data – i.e. making sense of the blips.

• Camera footage: “We couldn’t confidently plot those helicopters [in the air] with radar data alone,” Hower allows. Though the footage has never been made public, video from the doomed helicopters was made available to the six-person Kitchen Sink team to help patch together the sequence of events.

• High-resolution mapping: Using Google Earth and other mapping technology, the animators were able to visualize city structures and terrain under and around the helicopters.

• Forensic crash experts: “We actually went to the wreckage yard and worked with expert helicopter blade reconstructionists [to help visualize the impact],” Hower says. “I didn’t know there was such an occupation, but they’re very [in-demand]. The [experts] could determine how [a rotor blade] sliced, know what direction it was going and gather a theoretical analysis of what it clipped and when.”

• Audio: Hower and his animators used radio chatter and broadcast audio both to reconstruct the accident and, finally, provide a dub track for the video.

The end result: A compelling demonstration of how the Valley’s most famous air disaster might have happened.

— Craig Outhier 

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