Officials have yet to positively identify the man who died when a Clarkston-based helicopter crashed in Garfield County Saturday afternoon while working on a mule deer study for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife.
Garfield County Prosecutor Matt Newberg, who is also the county coroner, said the victim didn't have identification on his person. He also hadn't been able to speak with the two other people in the helicopter because they were hospitalized in Lewiston.
Newberg said he has tentatively identified the deceased man and hopes to release his name after he completes notifying next of kin.
The man was in the right front passenger seat of a small helicopter when it went down around 2 p.m. Saturday in Ping Gulch, about 25 miles north of Pomeroy, according to the Washington State Patrol. He died at the scene.
Early Sunday afternoon, WSP misidentified the person who died. The Tribune posted that information to its website and through social media but later removed the postings after learning of the error.
WSP Trooper Chris Thorson said the suspected victim had a very similar name, which likely led to the confusion.
The pilot of the Hughes-model helicopter, 33-year-old Blake Malo of Clarkston, was in critical condition at St. Joseph Regional Medical Center in Lewiston on Sunday, according to a nursing supervisor. Passenger Garrett Bradshaw, 30, of Eagle Point, Ore., was in fair condition.
Malo and Bradshaw were flown to the hospital by a LifeFlight helicopter from the remote scene of the crash, according to Thorson.
Sgt. Paul Mosman of the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife said the helicopter was operated by Kiwi Air in Clarkston, and working under contract for the department. Its crew was participating in a new study of mule deer, and was using a net gun to capture the animals and attach radio-tracking collars Saturday.
He said Malo is an experienced pilot who did this type of wildlife contract work for agencies all over the West, and had completed thousands of successful animal captures before Saturday's incident.
But Mosman said the work is inherently dangerous, with pilots flying at very low altitudes and making tight turns and quick changes in direction to follow the elusive animals.
"Over the years, it is probably the leading cause of incidents and deaths for wildlife biology crews," Mosman said.
He was on the scene of the crash over the weekend, and said the helicopter came down on steep terrain. Ping Gulch extends north from Lower Deadman Road near the Snake River, about 25 miles north of Pomeroy.
Albert Nixon of the National Transportation Safety Board said investigators from his agency and the Federal Aviation Administration arrived at the crash site Sunday to take over the investigation. The cause of the crash isn't yet known, but a preliminary report will be released in about five days.
But Nixon said the final report on the cause of the crash could take as much as a year to complete. Conditions in the area were windy on Saturday, according to Garfield County Sheriff's Office dispatch.
WSP Trooper James Stairett was also at the crash site Sunday, and said the helicopter came to rest on its side on private property in the ravine. The hull of the aircraft was intact, but it had otherwise sustained severe damage, Stairett said.
Malo and Samantha Poirier acquired Kiwi Air in 2015 from Mark and Jeannie Stanton, according to a story in the Lewiston Tribune. They had previously worked for Quicksilver Air in Fairbanks, Alaska, where Malo was a lead pilot.
They put tracking collars on wolves, moose, elk, deer and caribou, according to the story. They decided to buy Kiwi Air when they saw it was for sale during a visit to Malo's parents in Oregon. Malo earned his helicopter pilot's license on his 16th birthday, and once worked for a company that did tours over live volcanoes in Hawaii.
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