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Two people, including the highly-experienced pilot of the luxury eight-seater Agusta Westland helicopter, were killed after the aircraft struck a crane in central London while flying in low cloud and plummeted to the ground “like a rocket”.

The helicopter clipped the crane above the St George’s Wharf tower in Vauxhall while trying to divert due to bad weather and smashed into a busy road, setting cars and buildings ablaze as pedestrians fled for their lives amid a lethal falling debris of building materials and aircraft parts.

Eye-witnesses described hearing a thunderclap-like bang shortly before 8am and looking up to see the helicopter, denuded of its rotors and tail, emerging from the clouds shrouding the Thamesside skyscraper – a few hundred yards from the headquarters of MI6 – as it plunged earthwards.

It crashed in a fireball close to a railway bridge at one of the London’s busiest transport interchanges.

Commander Neil Basu, the police officer in charge of a massive emergency operation, said it was a miracle that the aftermath of the rush-hour crash was not “many, many times worse”.

Amid hellish scenes created by pools of burning aviation fuel, firefighters and passers-by pulled one man from a car set alight in the crash.

A total of 12 people were injured, with the majority walking wounded who were treated at the scene for cuts and bruises. Five required hospital treatment, including a man with a broken leg. The second fatality was a person on the ground, believed to have been in the one of the burning buildings.

The pilot was named as Pete Barnes, 50, a veteran helicopter specialist who had flown air ambulances and had more than 12,000 hours flying time, including filming for a string of Hollywood blockbusters and transporting celebrities and public figure. He was described by colleagues yesterday as “one of the best”.

The sight of a £4m aircraft falling out of the skies despite some of the world’s tightest regulations for flying over a large city provoked calls, backed by Prime Minister David Cameron, for a review of the rules that allow more than 1,300 helicopter flights over central London each month. The accident is believed to be the first fatal helicopter crash in central London since records began in 1976.

Kate Hoey, Labour MP for the Vauxhall area, said the area “would have been facing a major, major catastrophe” if the helicopter has landed on the apartments nearby.

The Air Accident Investigation Branch said it would be “several months” before it could produce a definitive report on the cause of the tragedy. But investigators will focus on just how a modern aircraft, fully equipped for instrument flying, collided with a 770ft-tall structure despite a 500ft exclusion zone around all buildings in the capital.

One eyewitness told The Independent that the helicopter, a 15-year-old twin-engined AgustaWestland 109 Power, appeared to be out of control moments before the collision as it headed westwards along the Thames, en route from Redhill in Surrey to Elstree, Hertfordshire. There were unconfirmed reports that Mr Barnes had been on his way to pick up a prominent businessman.

Sharon Moore, 39, said: “The helicopter was out of control. The noise made us look up and I thought ‘Oh my God’. It was swerving and then we heard a loud bang as the helicopter hit the building. Then it just went boom, there was flame and smoke everywhere.”

Terrified commuters said the scene resembled a Hollywood disaster movie as debris, including steel stantions from the crane left hanging crumpled above the accident scene.

Warehouse supervisor Ben Slinger, 28, told The Independent: “There was an explosion directly overhead, like a thunderclap. I looked up. There was thick cloud and out of the cloud there suddenly came this rotor-less helicopter.

“The body of the aircraft seemed perfectly intact – it just had the rotors missing. It plunged in a straight line to the ground like a rocket. It went straight into the road and went up in an enormous fireball. I could feel the heat from the fire on my face. I couldn’t believe my eyes.”

Key to the investigation will be the role played in the tragedy by the weather and whether dense low cloud had obscured warning lights on the crane and tower. NATS, the air traffic control service, issued a notice to all pilots last week warning of the “high-rise jib crane” rising to 770ft at Vauxhall.

Under strict safety rules, the crane and tower – one of the tallest residential structures in Europe – would have to have been lit by red lights showing their highest point. A spokeswoman for Berkeley Homes, the developer, said regular checks had been carried out on the lights but it could not be confirmed that they were lit at the time of the crash. Residents had previously raised concerns that the lights were not always on.

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Chaos as helicopter crashes in central London after hitting crane – The Independent
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