Six Britons killed in helicopter crash: Five from one family die on tourist flight in Romania. James Cusick reports
James Cusick is political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. His career as a journalist has been split between print and television, including senior positions as producer with Sir David Frost and at BBC Newsnight. He is also an award-winning golf and travel writer, working for over a decade as the UK contributing editor for one of the USA’s leading golf magazines. He broadcasts regularly for the BBC and CNN. He lives in London.
Friday 25 March 1994
The helicopter was on a sightseeing tour over the medieval town of Brasov, in Transylvania, the legendary site of Dracula's castle, when it fell 200ft to the ground.
Those who died were from a family group of eight and a friend enjoying a skiing holiday.
Among the dead were the parents of an 11-month-old boy who was being looked after in the Carpathian mountain resort of Poiana Brasov by his great-grandfather. The child's grandparents and great- grandmother were also killed. The dead were named as Enid Whitcombe, 62, the great-grandmother; Janet Smith, 38 and Derek Smith, 43, the grandparents; Nicole Smith, 19 and Justin Marrah, 19, the child's parents; Jason Norton, 22; and their pilot, Sorin Pirse.
Two adults from the group, Donald Whitcombe, 75, the great-grandfather, and Michelle Smith, Nicole's sister, stayed with the baby and did not go on the flight.
The transport ministry in Bucharest ordered an immediate halt to all sight-seeing air travel in the area pending an investigation into the crash. A representative from the British Embassy in Bucharest was travelling to Brasov last night.
The family is thought to have taken a break from their ski trip and chartered the helicopter to fly over the old republic of Transylvania, including Dracula's castle, and the nearby mountains. The recently restored Gothic residence of local legend Vlad the Impaler, on which Bram Stoker based the fictional 19th century character of Count Dracula, is one of Romania's most popular tourist attractions.
Since the end of the Communist dictatorship in Romania there has been accelerated tourist development attempting to attract foreign currency. Although facilities are said to be far short of standards associated with countries in Western Europe, the Association of British Travel Agents said last night that no safety problems had been encountered. The group had been on a holiday organised by the Abta-registered company, East Coast Travel, based in north London.
The state-owned Utilitarian Aviation company operated the French-designed Alouette helicopter, which had flown three times earlier in the day. The pilot was said to be experienced. According to Brasov police, witnesses said it 'fell out of the air like a stone' near the end of its 30-minute flight. Ground controllers in Brasov said they had lost contact with the helicopter 20 minutes after it took off.
Another witness said that the 'engine had stopped when they were in the air, there was some engine problem and it crashed into the forest.' He said the aircraft 'disintegrating when it hit the ground, throwing the bodies out'.
Mr Whitcombe and Michelle Smith were said to be in shock last night in their hotel in Poiana Brasov. Arrangements were being made to fly them home today.
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