Chilling 911 calls from Kobe Bryant's helicopter crash released

On the morning of Jan. 26, 2020, Kobe Bryant and eight others, including his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, were killed after their helicopter crashed into a hillside in Calabasas, Calif. The group was on its way to a youth basketball tournament in Thousand Oaks, Calif. at Bryant's Mamba Sports Academy at the time of the tragic accident.

While the Los Angeles County Coroner's Office determined that the cause of death for all nine victims was blunt force trauma, the official cause of the crash itself is still under investigation at this time. In fact, according to Jennifer Komendy of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), it will be at least a year before the final report on the crash is released (via CNN).

On the day of the crash, TMZ reported that an eyewitness had said "they heard the helicopter's engine sputtering before it went down." Now, more than a week after the accident, 911 calls from Bryant's helicopter crash have been released, providing even more chilling eyewitness accounts. The recently released calls provide further insight into just what happened on that fateful morning in Calabasas.

All of the eyewitnesses mention poor weather

The released 911 calls to the Los Angeles County Fire Department from Jan. 26, 2020, all touch on the fact that visibility was extremely low due to heavy fog.

"I just heard a helicopter go over me approximately from Lost Hills Road on a south to easterly sweep. It went over my head. It's thick in clouds. And then I just, I heard a pop, and it immediately stopped," one caller told a dispatcher (via ABC7). He added, "That part of the top of the mountain is obstructed in clouds."

Another witness had trouble identifying the aircraft as a helicopter due to the poor weather conditions, telling a dispatcher: "I'm walking on the trail. I could hear the plane, I think it was, in the clouds. We couldn't see it. And then we just heard a 'boom' and a dead sound, and then I could see the flames."

One eyewitness who was farther away from the actual crash site also reported seeing the flames. "A helicopter crashed into a mountain. We heard it. And now I'm looking at the flames," the man told the dispatcher. "We're looking at the flames right now on the hill."

The calls paint a devastating picture of the final moments of all aboard the helicopter, but there are still quite a few unanswered questions. In fact, the world will probably never know exactly what was happening in those last few minutes because of a missing piece of equipment.

The helicopter was missing a crucial device

At the time of the fatal crash, Kobe Bryant's longtime pilot of choice, Ara Zobayan, was flying the helicopter. According to the Los Angeles Times, the 50-year-old was described as the "chief pilot" at Island Express Helicopters, the company that owned the helicopter involved. Zobayan, an experienced pilot who actually flew Bryant to his final L.S. Lakers game back in 2016, had more than 8,000 hours of flight time under his belt (via Business Insider.) However, despite the fact that Zobayan had years of experience, that didn't change the fact that he was missing a couple of important pieces of equipment at takeoff.

According to NBC Chicago, the helicopter was missing a cockpit voice recorder — a device that could "have shed light on the flight's final moments." Island Express reportedly removed the device in March 2016, after purchasing the helicopter from the State of Illinois and "there is no record" of it ever being replaced. The National Transportation Safety Board has asked for all aircraft to be equipped with that device, but that request has not been supported by the Federal Aviation Administration.

Jennifer Komendy of the NTSB said the presence of the recorder would have "helped us significantly in this investigation," per NBC Chicago. However, Zobayan did have an iPad with him which has been recovered by investigators for further examination.

The company that owns the helicopter grounded all flights

In addition to the missing cockpit voice recorder, National Transportation Safety Board board member Jennifer Komendy also revealed that the helicopter carrying Kobe Bryant and eight others lacked a "terrain awareness and warning system, or TAWS" (via The New York Times.) According to the New York Post, the device "would have sounded an alarm once the Sikorsky S-76B approached the ground, possibly giving pilot Ara Zobayan time to pull up." However, even though the TAWS was not installed, the Post reports that there was a "warning system using GPS" on board. One air safety consultant told The New York Times that it's "too early in the investigation to know whether the system could have helped avoid" the crash.

In light of the tragic accident, Island Express Helicopters has suspended all services. On Jan. 30, 2020, the company posted the following message on its website: "The shock of the accident affected all staff, and management decided that service would be suspended until such time as it was deemed appropriate for staff and customers."

While a final report on the helicopter crash is not expected anytime soon, a preliminary report is slated to be released in the coming days. Hopefully, it will shed more light on the devastating accident and provide some sense of closure to the victims' loved ones.