MALIBU, CA — As federal investigators comb through the wreckage on a Calabasas hillside Monday to find out why a helicopter crashed into the mountain and took the lives of nine people, the nation continued to come to grips with the sudden death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant.
The National Transportation Safety Board and Federal Aviation Administration are examining the role that fog or engine trouble may have played in the crash that killed Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna — a budding basketball star — and seven others. In the meantime, American presidents joined in the mourning of a legend and Angelenos gathered throughout Los Angeles to comfort one another in grieving for a complicated champion who, for so long, represented the heart of this city.
The NTSB team of 19 visited the site of the helicopter crash Monday. According to NTSB member Jennifer Homendy, the pilot of the helicopter was flying at about 1,400 feet when the copter passed the airports in Burbank and Van Nuys, en route to Camarillo. The pilot reported he was going to climb to avoid some cloud cover, and he was last reported at 2,300 feet when the helicopter began a left-descending turn. The crash occurred immediately afterward.
At the time of the crash, visibility was so poor in the area that the Los Angeles Police Department and L.A. County Sheriff’s Department had grounded their helicopters, the Times reported. However, the helicopter was given Special Visual Flight Rules clearance, according to an audio recording between the helicopter’s pilot and Burbank Airport air traffic control, giving them permission to proceed through Burbank’s airspace on the foggy morning.
The helicopter took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County before crashing on a hillside at 9:47 a.m. in the 4200 block of Las Virgenes Road in Calabasas, according to officials. The NTSB is asking anyone who has photos depicting the weather conditions in the Calabasas area when the crash occurred to share them with investigators by emailing them to email@example.com.
Immediately following the crash, firefighters responded to the scene to douse flames coming from the wreckage and a quarter-acre brush fire with it, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said at Sunday’s news conference. Crews encountered difficulties because magnesium was at the crash site, which “is very hard for our firefighters to extinguish” due to its reaction with water and oxygen, he said.
The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office said it had a team of experts ready to begin the recovery of bodies — and a massive refrigerated vehicle ready to transport the victims’ bodies — a process that officials said would take a couple of days. The area has been cordoned off by the sheriff’s department, accessible only to area residents with identification, and the airspace above it has been declared a no-fly zone.
Mourning Everyone Onboard
The nine people onboard the helicopter were headed to a travel basketball game. Along with Kobe and Gianna Bryant, who was on the team, were a college baseball coach, his wife and daughter.
Among those killed were John Altobelli, who spent the last 27 years as the head coach at Orange Coast College, his wife, Keri, and daughter Alyssa, who played on the same AAU basketball team as Bryant’s daughter.
Another coach, Christina Mauser, an assistant basketball coach at Harbor Day School in Corona del Mar, was also a victim. Her husband, Matthew Mauser, who was also a basketball coach at the school, posted on Facebook: “My kids and I are devastated. We lost our beautiful wife and mom today in a helicopter crash. Please respect our privacy. Thank you for all the well wishes they mean so much.”
The school issued a brief statement saying the campus is in mourning: “Harbor Day School is devastated by the news. We are mourning the loss of members of our community. Our first priority is the well-being of our students. As news is publicized, we will ensure that our support team is made available to assist and counsel our students. We appreciate your patience and understanding.”
Also killed in the crash were Sarah Chester and her daughter Payton, according to a family friend who said the daughter attended St. Margaret’s Episcopal School in San Juan Capistrano.
The pilot flying the helicopter, Ara Zobayan, was an instrument-rated pilot, meaning he was qualified to fly in foggy and cloudy conditions and had logged more than 1,000 hours piloting the craft. Friends remembering Zobayan on social media said he taught aspiring helicopter pilots to fly.
All of the victims on the flight were reportedly from Orange County.
Grieving A Great
Bryant, a Los Angeles Lakers legend, continues to be mourned across the U.S. and beyond. Considered one of the greatest players in the history of basketball, Bryant was as competitive as he was charismatic, both on and off the court. The Lakers shooting guard, also known as the Black Mamba, had the skills of his namesake, one of the fastest snakes in the world — also known for their impeccable accuracy when striking their prey.
Read more: ‘Black Mamba’: Origin Story Of Kobe Bryant’s Legendary Nickname
Just a day before the crash, Bryant was passed by LeBron James for third place on the NBA’s all-time scoring list. Bryant gave a shoutout to James on Twitter, saying, “Continuing to move the game forward @KingJames. Much respect my brother #33644.”
Hordes of shocked fans gathered to mourn the NBA legend outside the Staples Center in Los Angeles, beside the mural of Bryant on Melrose Avenue, and at Our Lady Queen of Angels Catholic Church in Newport Beach, where Bryant attended Mass regularly with his family.
In Calabasas, authorities designated DeAnza Park, near the crash site, as a place to leave flowers or pay respects to the crash victims.
President Donald Trump reacted on Twitter to reports of Bryant’s death, calling it, “terrible news!” Former President Barack Obama called Bryant a “legend on the court.”
“To lose Gianna is even more heartbreaking to us as parents,” Obama said in a tweet.
Meanwhile, the sports community shared messages of their grief for the loss and their admiration for Bryant as a basketball player and as a person.
Read more: Greatness Of Kobe Bryant Remembered As The Sports World Mourns
“I am in shock over the tragic news of Kobe’s and Gianna’s passing,” Michael Jordan said in a statement. “Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling. I loved Kobe — he was like a brother to me.” Shaquille O’Neal, who won three championships with the Lakers alongside Bryant, said there were “no words to express the pain” he felt following the news.
“Kobe was so much more than an athlete, he was a family man,” O’Neal wrote. “That was what we had most in common. I would hug his children like they were my own and he would embrace my kids like they were his.”
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said the league was “devastated” by the passing of Bryant and his daughter.
“For 20 seasons, Kobe showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with an absolute devotion to winning,” Silver said.
The City Of Angels Mourns
For most of his life, Bryant was a legend of the sports world destined to be remembered as an icon, but for the City of Angels, he was a champion. For more than two decades, his Lakers jersey was a symbol of a city’s pride. It was hung from the rafters and worn like a uniform at high schools and in pickup games. He was the young face of a dynasty team, who remained a dominant player right up until his record-setting final game when, at 37, he became the oldest player to ever score 60 points in a game.
Thousands gathered Sunday afternoon at Staples Center to mourn together at the “house that Kobe built.”
“I’m literally in STAPLES Center right now. Everyone has the same look of loss right now,” ESPN senior writer Justin Tinsley tweeted. “We’re all zombies. Surreal doesn’t even begin to describe what it feels like.”
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A makeshift memorial was also erected at the downtown mural of Bryant in the 1300 block of Lebanon Street. Hundreds of people have written tributes on Post-It notes.
“They don’t make them like that anymore. Everybody wants to take the easy route — but Kobe, he was willing to never be satisfied at where he was,” one person told KABC7. “He always wanted to push to a higher level. You don’t see that no more. I just appreciate everything you did, Kobe, for real.”
A sign at the site quoted Bryant: “The most important thing is to try and inspire people so that they can be great in whatever they want to do.”
The Lakers also created a space for fans outside their training facility but inside the security gates at 2275 E. Mariposa Avenue in El Segundo. Fans are signing a large white canvas.
“There’s a Lakers backdrop with flowers and candles in front of it. Some photos of Kobe, L.A. Times reporter Tania Ganguli tweeted.
People have gathered outside the Pelican Crest gated community where Bryant lived with his family. “He may be a giant to the world, but he’s Kobe to us,” local resident Cathy Kropf told KNBC4.
A shrine was also set up at Bryant’s Mamba Sports Academy in Newbury Park, where he was headed for a basketball tournament with 13-year-old daughter Gianna, other teens and their parents when the helicopter crashed.
And some people are gathering near the Calabasas hillside where the crash occurred, which has been secured so the National Transportation Safety Board can conduct its investigation.
But as the nation and the city that loved him search for words of comfort and understanding, it might be the words of The Black Mamba himself that sum up the life and death of the legend. The 17-time NBA All-Star said goodbye to his playing career with a poem that would later earn him an Academy Award:
“My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows its time to say goodbye.
And that’s OK.
I’m ready to let you go now
So we can both savor every moment we have left together.
The good and the bad.
We have given each other
All that we have.
And we both know, no matter what I do next
I’ll always be that kid
With the rolled-up socks
Garbage can in the corner
:05 seconds on the game clock
Ball in my hands
5 … 4 … 3 … 2 … 1
Love you always,
The Black Mamba’s Complicated Legacy
Kobe Byrant was no ordinary athlete, and he leaves behind a complicated legacy filled with glory, frustration, mystery and now tragedy.
He was the first guard ever drafted straight out of high school, making him a patron saint for young basketball dreamers and the focus of intense expectations. He responded with a shield of confidence that some on his team and in the media interpreted as arrogance. He famously declared that he would lead the Lakers in scoring, a boast that seemed to irk his famous teammate Shaquille O’Neal, who announced he wouldn’t be “babysitting” the rookie.
The gregarious O’Neal and the aloof rookie frequently clashed while still managing to win three championships together. Bryant racked up points while enduring comparisons to O’Neal, who was labeled the selfless player in contrast to Bryant. But it was Bryant who would continue to win championships for the Lakers after O’Neal was traded. It was Bryant who became the indelible face of the Lakers, one of few stars to play his whole career with the same club. And even Bryant’s critics couldn’t ignore his legendary work ethic and competitive ferocity.
But “The Black Mamba” moniker wasn’t born on the court. That was an alter ego Bryant that chose to help get him through his darkest hour, the 2003 sex assault allegation made against him by a 19-year-old hotel clerk in Colorado. It threatened his family, his career and, briefly, his freedom.
The woman claimed that the incident occurred June 30, 2003, in a hotel room at the Lodge & Spa at Cordillera in the Rocky Mountains town of Edwards. The woman who made the allegation was working as the front-desk clerk and accompanied Bryant on a tour of the property. She later went to his hotel room, where she said he raped her.
“Every time I said ‘no,’ he tightened his hold around me,” she told police, according to court documents obtained by The Daily Beast.
Afterward, she told police that Bryant warned her that the encounter “is just between the two, the two of us, nobody is gonna know about this, you’re not going to tell anybody.”
The 24-year-old Bryant was charged with one count of felony assault in a case that took 14 months to be resolved. In the end, the accuser decided not to testify, and prosecutors dropped the case Sept. 1, 2004. A civil suit brought by the accuser in August 2004 was settled out of court in March 2005.
A day after the alleged incident, Bryant underwent knee surgery in nearby Vail. His accuser reported the incident to the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department, and investigators searched his hotel room for evidence.
Bryant’s attorneys said DNA evidence suggested she had sex with someone else in the hours after the alleged rape and before a medical the exam was conducted, although prosecutors denied it. Bryant was charged with one count of felony sexual assault July 18, 2003. With his wife, Vanessa, at his side, Bryant held a news conference at Staples Center, admitting that he committed adultery but denying he had assaulted the 19-year-old.
“I sit here in front of you guys furious at myself, disgusted at myself for making a mistake of adultery,” he said.
After nearly a year of discovery and pretrial hearings, Bryant entered a plea of not guilty on May 11, 2004. As the case moved toward a trial, the accuser’s determination to pursue a criminal trial weakened once she added libel attorney Lin Wood to her team. He believed a criminal trial would not end well for her.
Later, there was another significant concession from Bryant.
“Although I truly believe this encounter between us was consensual, I recognize now that she did not and does not view this incident the same way I did,” he said in a statement. “After months of reviewing discovery, listening to her attorney, and even her testimony in person, I now understand how she feels that she did not consent to this encounter.”
For a time, he lost endorsement campaigns, including with Nike, which he resumed serving as pitchman in July 2005.
The rape allegation episode would resurface in 2018, when 17,000 people signed a petition demanding he be stripped of his Academy Award nomination for his animated short, “Dear Basketball.”
Bryant won the Oscar anyway but was dropped from an Animation jury over the accusations.
Years after the allegation, Byrant opened up about the experience. “I went from a person who was at the top of his game, had everything coming, to a year later, having absolutely no idea where life is going or if you are even going to be a part of life as we all know it,” he said in his documentary, “Muse.”
The Black Mamba, he said, started as a way for him to separate his competitive drive from the stresses in his life. It evolved into an ethos of uncompromising focus. And now it’s entwined with the legacy of Kobe Bryant.
This story will be updated as more information becomes available; Patch staffers Paige Austin and Nick Garber and City News Service contributed to this post