AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Investigators are trying to figure out why a helicopter crashed in Central London today. Two people were killed including the pilot. Yet the death toll could have been much, much worse. As NPR's Philip Reeves reports, the aircraft came down in the heart of the British capital during rush hour.
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PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: The crash happened as Londoners were beginning their working day. It was a freezing morning. The city lay beneath a blanket of very low cloud. Andrew Beadle was nearby when the helicopter hit a crane.
ANDREW BEADLE: I heard an almighty bang, which really shocked me. You could feel the actual floor move. And I looked and I literally saw the helicopter and just the blades, just evaporate and it hit the center of the crane. And the chopper just came down.
REEVES: The crane was on a huge luxury residential tower block being built on the south banks of the Thames. Wreckage from the aircraft fell into the street.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Oh, mate. Your car's on fire. Get out of the car.
REEVES: Passersby, using mobile phones, captured footage of flames engulfing the street and setting several cars alight. Bernie Bullen was delivering material to a nearby building site.
BERNIE BULLEN: It nosedived just over there, and then a big explosion. And then we heard metal falling. That was the jib of the crane falling down. And everybody was running.
REEVES: The twin-engined helicopter came down around 8 a.m., at peak commuting time. It crashed close to Vauxhall rail station. The area is a major transport hub. The main rail line to Waterloo runs through it. There's an underground station. The headquarters of Britain's foreign intelligence service, MI6, is close by. Britain's parliament is about a mile away.
NEIL BASU: It is something of a miracle that this was not many, many times worse, given the time of day that this happened.
REEVES: That's Police Commander Neil Basu. He briefed the media.
BASU: At this stage what we believe has happened is that a commercial helicopter on a scheduled flight has collided with a crane on top of a building under construction in 9 Elms Road, South West 8.
REEVES: Reports say one of the two dead was killed on the ground. The other was the pilot, Peter Barnes. Barnes was a highly experienced aviator, who's flown in Britain and the United States. He's flown air ambulances and in the movies, including the James Bond thriller "Die Another Day." Today, he was heading for an airfield north of London but diverted, possibly because of bad weather. This is London's first recorded fatal chopper crash.
There are many hundreds of helicopter flights every month over this densely populated capital. Aviation authorities say strict rules apply. They say they regularly warn pilots about tall structures. Kate Huey is the member of parliament for the area where the crash happened. She says those rules may need reviewing.
KATE HUEY: We will need a real inquiry into the increasing numbers of helicopters that are flying around London coupled with the fact that there are so many new tall buildings.
REEVES: Philip Reeves, NPR News, London.
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CORNISH: This is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.