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MEEKER I It could be months before investigators know — or at least reveal — the cause of a fatal helicopter crash Nov. 3 up Wilson Creek, in northern Rio Blanco County, close to the Moffat County line.
“I’ll have a preliminary report by the end of the week, but the factual report will take at least six months, maybe a year,” Tom Latson, lead investigator for the National Transportation Safety Board, said Sunday.
Latson is hoping electronic media recovered from the wreckage of the helicopter, including onboard video and audio, will help investigators determine the cause of the crash.
Investigators with the Federal Aviation Administration were on the scene Nov. 4, while the lead investigator for the NTSB flew into Grand Junction to interview the helicopter’s pilot, Rich Westra, before visiting the crash scene, up County Road 9. Investigators with Bell helicopter and Rolls Royce engines also assisted.
Westra’s wife, Kelly, 46, died in the crash. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Rich Westra, 50, a longtime helicopter pilot for Channel 7 News in Denver, from 1991 to 2009, was president of Aviation Technology Services, out of Centennial. His wife also worked for the business.
The couple was doing pipeline survey work for Xcel Energy when their helicopter went down.
“He was contracted by Xcel Energy, flying their gas line looking for gas leaks,” said Mike Joos, Rio Blanco County undersheriff.
Joos said the helicopter clipped electrical lines before crashing, but it was unclear how and when the chopper came into contact with the lines. The power lines were not energized.
“They were flying at 100 to 125 feet, which is normal (for doing that kind of work), and at a very slow speed, typically at 50 mph, plus or minus a bit,” Latson said.
Workers from a nearby Chevron gas plant saw the helicopter crash and called 911, shortly after 3 p.m.
“Two gas plant workers heard the helicopter. They looked up and saw it take a nosedive and then it flipped in the air before it hit the ground, according to the witnesses,” Joos said. “They went up to the scene of the crash. One of them stayed with the victim, while the other one drove back to the gas plant and called 911.”
Officers from Rio Blanco and Moffat County sheriff’s offices as well as the Colorado State Patrol and Meeker Fire and Rescue responded to the emergency call.
Rich Westra was conscious and talking when emergency personnel arrived on the scene. He was taken by ambulance to Pioneers Medical Center in Meeker, before being flown to St. Mary’s Hospital in Grand Junction later that night.