Four killed as helicopter crashes on highway

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A commercial helicopter crashed onto a western Maryland interstate highway and burst into flames, killing all four people on board, emergency officials said.

The chopper was engulfed when firefighters arrived at the scene minutes after receiving a call at 10:30 p.m. Thursday (0230 GMT Friday), Washington County emergency services director Kevin Lewis said. No vehicles on the highway were hit when the helicopter smashed into the eastbound lanes of Interstate 70.

Visibility was somewhat limited by fog at the time of the crash, but it wasn't clear if weather played a role, Lewis said. Storms had passed through the area earlier in the night.

Lewis said a witness saw the helicopter flying low when a bright arc of electricity flashed in the air, apparently caused by the chopper striking a power line. It wasn't clear if it was already on its way down when it hit the lines.

"The witness basically saw a large arc at which point the helicopter crashed onto the interstate," Lewis said. Before seeing the arc, the witness thought the helicopter might have been trying to land along the roadway.

Interstate lanes in both directions remained closed early Friday at the crash site near Smithsburg, which is about 10 miles (15 kilometers) east of Hagerstown. Lewis, who was among the first emergency responders at the scene, said there were downed power lines in the westbound lanes.

Wreckage could be seen just off the shoulder of the three eastbound lanes. A blade jutted out from twisted metal. The wreckage is almost directly beneath a set of power lines.

Federal Aviation Administration records list the owner of the four-seat Robinson R44 helicopter as Marsan Aviation Inc., of Wilmington, Delaware. No phone number for the company could be found in the state.

Maryland State police, who are in charge of the investigation, declined to release the victims' names until family members were notified. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board and the FAA were also at the scene west of the Washington County-Frederick County line, on the western slope of a ridge known as South Mountain.

Maryland State police spokesman Greg Shipley said the bodies were being taken to the state medical examiner in Baltimore. Any information about the owner of the aircraft and the cause of the crash will come from the National Transportation Safety Board, which will conduct a briefing Friday morning at the Hagerstown Regional Airport.