LINO LAKES, Minn.-A helicopter that likely broke apart as it fell to the ground in a fiery blaze in Lino Lakes Thursday left two people dead, officials say.
A 47-year-old Blaine woman and a 48-year-old Minneapolis man were killed in the wreck, which took place about 5:30 p.m. in a field at the southeast corner of Sunset Avenue and Main Street, said Cmdr. Paul Sommer, a spokesman for the Anoka County sheriff's office.
Their names were not released pending notification of family.
The consequences of the wreck could have been even worse, Sommer added.
"It landed in an open field, but we're very close to dense residential neighborhoods near here," Sommer told reporters Thursday night. We're "fortunate it landed where it did."
Witnesses described observing a helicopter heading northeast across the sky suddenly appear to experience distress. Some people said they heard a loud "pop" or "explosion" and saw the aircraft's rotors seize spinning before it began breaking apart and falling from the sky, the sheriff's office reported.
The preliminary investigation conducted by the Anoka County Sheriff's Office determined the helicopter was a 1982 Fairchild Hiller FH-1100 and that it had been in flight earlier in the day with no known mechanical issues.
It's believed that the fatal flight departed from the Anoka County Airport in Blaine.
The Lino Lakes Police Department and first responders from many law enforcement agencies, Minnesota State Patrol Air Support, fire and EMS services responded to the scene and found an "obvious impact site in an open sod field along with a trail of debris" several hundred yards long, officials say.
The wreckage contained the helicopter's fuselage. There was also a large fireball of debris at the scene.
The collection of debris and the way it was scattered reportedly corroborated witness accounts that the helicopter broke apart as it descended.
"There was no possibility that any occupants of the aircraft could have survived the crash," the sheriff's office reported.
Erica Tighe had just left her parents house in Lino Lakes when she came across a parade of flashing lights zooming toward what she would later learn was the scene of the crash.
She pulled over to the side of the road at 5:32 p.m. because the response vehicles had blocked her and several other drivers' planned routes.
"We just stood there watching because we couldn't go anywhere," Tighe said. "It looked like an oversized bonfire, like maybe a small tractor or riding mower had caught on fire. ... It didn't dawn on me it could be a plane or helicopter."
She said law enforcement officials kept running toward the flames and then running back out as they waited for a fire truck to arrive. She later learned from her husband that she was watching the aftermath of a helicopter crash.
"That made sense. ... I didn't know what it could be in the middle of a field like that," Tighe said.
The sheriff's office is asking residents of the area to notify authorities if they find any metal or other objects that could be crash debris. Call the Lino Lakes Police Department at 763-427-1212. The debris should not be picked up or moved.
The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, an FAA spokesperson said.
According to aviation conditions at the nearby Anoka County-Blaine Airport, the sky was overcast at the time of the incident, with a 10,000-foot ceiling and a visibility of 10 miles. Winds were from the north at about 7 mph.
Second recent crash
The helicopter wreck was the second in Minnesota in the past three weeks.
On Sept. 17, a North Memorial Health Care helicopter crashed in Alexandria while en route to transfer a patient from the community's hospital.
The pilot, a nurse and a paramedic were injured. The paramedic remained in critical condition earlier this week at North Memorial Medical Center in Robbinsdale. No patients were on board.
The NTSB this week said its initial investigation found that weather likely played a major role in the crash.
Clouds were forming below the helicopter before it crashed about 2 a.m. in a wooded area near the Alexandria airport.
The pilot intended to divert to the airport to land there using his instruments instead of landing at the hospital.
Forum News Service and Mara H. Gottfried and Frederick Melo of the Pioneer Press, an FNS media partner, contributed to this report.