(Reuters) – The tall hillside where Los Angeles Lakers basketball great Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others perished in a helicopter crash was cleared on Tuesday of all wreckage and human remains as the on-scene phase of the investigation drew to a close.
A National Transportation Safety Board team carted a truckload of debris wrapped in large, white tarp bags to a secure location, while authorities said they had positively identified remains of four victims, including Bryant and the pilot.
Disclosing new details of Sunday’s tragedy, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy also said the pilot of Bryant’s luxury passenger helicopter had tried to climb out of a cloud layer before the chopper banked sharply and plunged 2,000 feet (610 m) per minute into the hillside.
“This is a pretty steep descent at high speed,” Homendy told a briefing in Calabasas, a town adjacent to the crash scene about 40 miles (64 km) northwest of downtown Los Angeles. “The time from descent to impact was probably about a minute.”
Crash investigators have offered no explanation for what might have led the twin-engine Sikorsky S-76B to bank abruptly to one side and then plummet to the ground. But Homendy said the estimated rate of descent “wouldn’t be a normal landing speed.”
Homendy has suggested that clouds, fog and limited visibility in the area were a key focus of the investigation, having appealed to the public on Monday to come forward with any photographs and videos that might document weather conditions around the crash site at the time.
She said many images had since been provided to the agency and would be analyzed in due course.
Bryant, 41, who retired from the National Basketball Association in 2016, was on his way to a youth sports academy with his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna. Her team that he coached was due to compete that day in a girls’ basketball tournament, when the crash occurred.
NTSB officials gave a private telephone briefing to the families of the dead on Tuesday afternoon, but Homendy declined to say anything about what was discussed and who took part in the call.
Speaking at the same news conference, Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva said coroner’s investigators had finished recovering the remains of all nine victims, and that positive identification had so far been made on four of them.
Besides Bryant and the pilot, Ara Zobayan, a commercial aviator and certified flight instructor with more than 8,200 hours of flight experience, medical examiners confirmed the identities of John Altobelli, an Orange Coast College baseball coach.
A fourth positive ID was made for Sarah Chester, who died in the crash with her 13-year-old daughter, Payton, another basketball player involved in the tournament.
Altobelli’s wife, Keri, and their 13-year-old daughter, Alyssa, a teammate of Gianna Bryant, also were among the dead, along with an assistant coach, Christina Mauser.
The death of Bryant, an 18-time NBA all-star and one of the most admired athletes around the globe, sent shockwaves through the sports and entertainment worlds.
The NTSB is expected to present a preliminary report in about 10 days on the facts of the air crash and make its final report with findings, recommendations and a probable cause in 12 to 18 months, Homendy said.
Reporting by Steve Gorman and Dan Whitcomb; Additional reporting by Daniel Trotta and Peter Szekely in New York; Editing by Bill Tarrant, Tom Brown and Peter Cooney
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