Air accident investigators were last night trying to piece together the last moments of the helicopter flight which ended with death raining down on early morning commuters.
Two people, including the highly experienced pilot of the luxury eight-seat AgustaWestland helicopter, were killed after the aircraft struck a crane in central London while flying in low cloud and plummeted to the ground "like a rocket".
The helicopter clipped the crane above the St George Wharf Tower in Vauxhall while trying to divert due to bad weather and smashed into a busy road, setting cars and buildings ablaze as pedestrians fled for their lives.
Witnesses described hearing a thunderclap-like bang shortly before 8am and looking up to see the helicopter, denuded of its rotors and tail, emerging from the clouds shrouding the skyscraper next to the River Thames – near the headquarters of MI6 – as it plunged earthwards. It crashed close to a railway bridge at one of London's busiest transport interchanges.
Commander Neil Basu, the police officer in charge of a massive emergency operation, said it was a miracle that the aftermath of the rush-hour crash was not "many, many times worse". Amid pools of burning aviation fuel, firefighters and passers-by pulled one man from a car that was set alight.
Twelve people were injured, the majority treated at the scene for cuts and bruises. Five required hospital treatment, including a man with a broken leg.
The pilot was named as Pete Barnes, 50, a veteran helicopter specialist who had flown air ambulances and had more than 12,000 hours of flying time, which included filming for a string of Hollywood blockbusters and transporting celebrities and public figures. He was described by colleagues last night as "one of the best".
The second person killed was believed to have been in one of the burning buildings. Last night he was named as 39-year-old Matthew Wood, from Sutton, Surrey. His next of kin have been informed, the Metropolitan Police said.
The sight of a £4m aircraft falling out of the skies, despite some of the world's tightest regulations for flying over a large city, provoked calls, backed by David Cameron, for a review of rules that allow more than 1,300 helicopter flights over central London each month. The accident is believed to be the first fatal helicopter crash in the city centre since records began in 1976. Kate Hoey, the Labour MP for the Vauxhall area, said it "would have been facing a major, major catastrophe" if the helicopter had landed on the apartments nearby.
The Air Accident Investigation Branch said it would be "several months" before it could produce a definitive report on the cause of the tragedy. But it will focus on how a modern aircraft, fully equipped for instrument flying, collided with a 770ft-tall structure despite a 500ft exclusion zone around all buildings in the capital.
One witness told The Independent that the helicopter, a 15-year-old twin-engined AgustaWestland 109 Power, appeared to be out of control moments before the collision as it headed westwards along the Thames, en route from Redhill in Surrey to Elstree, Hertford-shire. There were unconfirmed reports that Mr Barnes was on his way to pick up a prominent businessman.
Sharon Moore, 39, said: "The helicopter was out of control. The noise made us look up and I thought, 'Oh my God'. It was swerving and then we heard a loud bang as the helicopter hit the building. Then it just went boom, there was flame and smoke everywhere."
Terrified commuters said the scene resembled a Hollywood disaster movie. The debris included steel stanchions from the crane left hanging crumpled above the accident scene.
Ben Slinger, 28, a warehouse supervisor, said: "There was an explosion directly overhead, like a thunderclap. I looked up. There was thick cloud and out of the cloud there suddenly came this rotorless helicopter. The body of the aircraft seemed perfectly intact – it just had the rotors missing. It plunged in a straight line to the ground like a rocket. It went straight into the road and went up in an enormous fireball. I could feel the heat from the fire on my face. I couldn't believe my eyes."
Key to the inqury will be the role played by the weather and whether dense low cloud obscured warning lights on the crane and tower.
Eyewitness: Lucky escapes
The voluntary worker, who has five children and who lives nearby, saw the helicopter slice through the crane "as if it was a piece of paper". "The helicopter did not seem to know which way to turn and then it just dropped. It sliced, screeching into the metal," said Ms Moore, 36. Moments before the aircraft came down, it appeared to try to avoid the tower block. "I honestly think it was as if the pilot was blinded," she said. "I think the helicopter tried to swerve but didn't know which way to turn."
The lorry driver was collecting building materials from the tower when he saw debris and then the crane's boom crashing down. "I was scared and legged it," he told The Guardian. "I didn't know which way to run because there were bits everywhere. I ran towards the station and there were still bits raining down." He said he saw "a massive fireball" as the helicopter exploded and a building caught light, adding that it was lucky the wreckage fell across Nine Elms Lane just after the traffic lights turned red. "If the lights were green, the traffic would have gone through and it would have been a different story."
The 45-year-old was walking to work with his flatmate when they saw the helicopter hit the crane. "There was a loud crack and it started spinning out of control towards us," he told Sky News. "We ran across the road and my flatmate fell over and I had to grab him. The helicopter crashed into the road just feet away from us. When you see a helicopter hurtling out of the sky towards you, it's incredible. It's the last thing you expect... we were so lucky. If we had been walking there just a few moments later we would have been dead."
One of the first firefighters on the scene, he said it was "absolute chaos" but the helicopter blaze was extinguished in 20 minutes. "I could see smoke from a mile away," he said. "The helicopter was still alight, part of the rotor blade was on the roof of nearby buildings."