Everything we know about Kobe Bryant's helicopter crash death so far

On the morning of Sunday, January 26, 2020, a helicopter carrying NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, and seven other people crashed in Calabasas, Calif., killing everyone on board. Bryant was 41 years old.

Though the cause of the crash is under investigation at the time of this writing, TMZ relayed an account from an eyewitness who said "that they heard the helicopter's engine sputtering before it went down." Photos allegedly depicting the wreckage of the tragic accident, published on TMZ's initial reportage of Bryant's death, reveal that the helicopter had crashed into what appear to be the Santa Monica Mountains, visible behind the building for the Las Virgenes Water District at in Calabasas.

While many questions remain, we'll take a closer look at the circumstances surrounding this tragedy and reflect on the lives lost.

Kobe Bryant had used a private helicopter for years

According to the TMZ report, Bryant had routinely used his private helicopter as a means of transportation for many years. In 2010, a GQ profile of Bryant described his practice of taking a private chopper to all of his home games with the Los Angeles Lakers, a method of travel he continued to employ up through his retirement from the team and the NBA in 2016. Throughout the majority of his career with the Lakers, he lived in a house located in Newport Coast, in Newport Beach, California, and traveled via the helicopter to the Lakers' home at the STAPLES Center in LA, a distance of about 48 miles. The TMZ report was updated a few hours after its initial posting to assert that the helicopter was on its way to the Mamba Academy — Kobe Bryant's sports training facility in Thousand Oaks, California — for basketball practice.

With his wife Vanessa, Kobe Bryant was father to four daughters: Gianna, Natalia, Bianca, and Capri, who was only born on June 20, 2019 — just over seven months before Bryant's untimely death.

Information about the helicopter's other passengers is emerging

In addition to Bryant and Gianna, Orange Coast College baseball coach John Altobelli, his wife, Keri, and their daughter, Alyssa, were among the victims in the helicopter crash, per ESPN. OCC Athletic Director Jason Kehler said, "John meant so much to not only Orange Coast College, but to baseball. He truly personified what it means to be a baseball coach."

CNN reported that Christina Mauser, who coached girls' basketball at Harbor Day School in Corona Del Mar, was also on board. Her husband, Matt Mauser, wrote 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."

CNN additionally reported that Todd Schmidt, principal at Harbor View Elementary School in Newport Beach, Calif., seemingly confirmed the identity of two other passengers onboard the fatal wreck: Sarah and Payton Chester. In a Facebook post, Schmidt wrote that Payton was a student at the school, and that both her and her mother Sarah were "two gorgeous human beings." His statement continued, "This family made such a huge impact at Harbor View...they were genuine, kind-hearted, and caring...to the staff, to other families...and yes, especially to me. While the world mourns the loss of a dynamic athlete and humanitarian, I mourn the loss of two people just as important...their impact was just as meaningful, their loss will be just as keenly felt, and our hearts are just as broken."

The pilot of the helicopter was identified by the Los Angeles Times as Ara Zobayan, who was also a flight school instructor, according to Brian Kemp, one of Zobayan's students. "[Bryant] doesn't let anyone else fly him around but Ara," Kemp told the outlet. 

The FBI is investigating the cause of the crash

While the cause of the helicopter crash remains undetermined at this time, CNN reported that the FBI is involved in investigating the scene and assisting the National Transportation Safety Board and local authorities. There's been speculation that the intense fog on the morning of the crash may have played a role, but that has not been confirmed. A spokesperson for Los Angeles Police Department's Air Support Division, Josh Rubenstein, told the Los Angeles Times that their own department's helicopters were not flying at the time because the "weather situation did not meet our minimum standards for flying." The LA Times reported that the cause of the crash is more likely the result of weather, rather than mechanical issues, citing a former pilot named Kurt Deetz. "The likelihood of a catastrophic twin engine failure on that aircraft — it just doesn't happen," Deetz said.

Addressing his own observations of the conditions that morning, AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Frank Strait said, "The cloud ceiling was around 1,100 feet at the time of the crash. The visibility would have been poor even in fog free areas for the pilot, who was flying between around 1,000 and 3,000 feet."

Again, the investigation is ongoing, and the cause has not been confirmed, but no matter the reason, it's undeniably a tragedy for the Bryant family and the rest of the victims' loved ones.

Kobe Bryant's helicopter had special permission to fly

Many have questioned why Kobe Bryant's helicopter took to the air, since reports indicated that the Los Angeles Police Department's helicopters hadn't flown that morning due to foggy weather. As it turns out, Bryant's helicopter was reportedly given special permission to fly. 

CNN reported that the chopper in question was operating under "special visual flight rules," which is clearance for pilots to fly in circumstances that standard flights would not. In a separate report, CNN noted that pilot Ara Zobayan had been given clearance by the Burbank Airport control tower, and at some point during the flight, the pilot asked for "flight following," given the rough weather conditions, but the helicopter was too low to receive the radar tracking assistance.

BuzzFeed shed more light on what's believed to be the helicopter's final moments. According to Jennifer Homendy from the National Transportation Safety Board, the pilot's final correspondence involved telling the control tower that he was climbing to fly above cloud cover, but when Zobayan was asked what he "planned to do, there was no reply." Then after climbing 2,300 feet, the copter reportedly took a left descending turn and eventually crashed into a hillside at 9:45 a.m. Police received 911 calls about the hillside brush fire at 9:47 that morning.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva has called the investigation into the cause of the crash "a logistical nightmare in a sense because the crash site itself is not easily accessible."

Kobe Bryant spent his final day doing what he loved most

Kobe Bryant reportedly spent the day before the helicopter crash doing one of his favorite things: watching his 13-year-old daughter Gianna (aka Gigi) play basketball. TMZ shared now-heartbreaking photos of Bryant and his daughter at the Mamba Sports Academy in Thousand Oaks on Saturday, Jan. 25, 2020. The NBA legend was spotted giving Gigi a pep talk, as well as proudly watching her from the sidelines.

Back in 2018, Bryant spoke about his daughter's WNBA aspirations on Jimmy Kimmel Live. During the late-night segment, he said (via Entertainment Tonight), "The best thing that happens when we go out, fans will come up to me and [Gianna will] be standing next to me and they'll be like, 'Hey, you gotta have a boy! You and V gotta have a boy to have somebody to carry on the tradition and the legacy. She's like, 'Hey, I got this! You don't need a boy for that.' And I'm like, 'That's right! You do. You got this.'" 

The fact that Gianna was so young and had so much potential makes this loss all the more tragic.