Helicopter went down, Flames seen: Kobe Bryant’s Last Fligt…
Eight passengers and a pilot were on the S-76B helicopter that crashed on a foggy hillside in the Santa Monica Mountains. This is the story of what happened.
Kobe Bryant pulled his Range Rover into the familiar lot on the edge of Orange County’s John Wayne Airport, the quiet side where small charter planes and private helicopters whisk people into the sky above the congestion of Los Angeles.
Inside one waiting area, a couple of dozen passengers sat glumly. Some of their charter flights had been grounded indefinitely because of poor visibility. They fidgeted with phones. Some watched CBS’s “Sunday Morning.”
But Bryant glided into another lounge and walked with his small group of teenage basketball players, parents and a coach through the automatic glass doors. They wiggled into a warmed-up Sikorsky S-76B helicopter, white with two tones of blue stripes.
Minutes later, at 9:06 a.m., they took to the air, on their way to the second day of a weekend tournament. The pilot steered the helicopter toward their destination in Thousand Oaks. As thick clouds loomed behind the hills to the north, they were one of the few helicopters in the sky.
Across the city, the Los Angeles County sheriff, Alex Villanueva, was running errands when he received a text message from his assistant sheriff. It was an image of a call that had come in at 9:47 over the department’s dispatch system.
In his sprawling county, where helicopters are used by many as taxis, aircraft troubles are not that rare. He told the assistant sheriff to keep him updated.
Ten minutes later, another text came, with a lot more detail. Two words stuck out.
“Confirmed Kobe,” it said.
The Mamba tournament
The weekend of Jan. 25, recounted here through interviews with witnesses, co-workers and family members, as well as a review of investigation documents and flight records, would begin for Bryant the way it ended: with a helicopter ride, this first one on Saturday morning, from John Wayne Airport.
Team Mamba, the girls’ basketball team Bryant coached in Orange County, was playing its first tournament game in Thousand Oaks, and his daughter Gianna would be among those playing. He made the flight from Orange County to a small airport at Camarillo, 80 miles away northwest of Los Angeles. A car took him the remaining few miles to the tournament at a gym co-owned by Bryant called Mamba Sports Academy.
Bryant, 41, had become known for his airborne commutes. In his last years as a star for the Los Angeles Lakers, he often took helicopters to practices and games, figuring it freed his time for other things, like family.
By the time the Mambas arrived at Mamba Sports Academy late that morning, the two-day Mamba Cup was well underway. The tournament featured boys and girls, ages 9 to 14. Teams came from throughout California and several states.
Team Mamba was the star attraction. Besides the world-famous coach and his daughter in jersey No. 2, the roster included Mackenly Randolph, the daughter of the former N.B.A. center Zach Randolph.
Bryant, so often the constant target of pining fans and their cellphone cameras, went to an upstairs lounge that boasts couches, TVs and a view of the five courts below.
He sent an order for his team to the coffee bar downstairs. About half wanted strawberry banana smoothies; the others, peanut butter protein shakes. Bryant had a shake, packed with peanut butter, banana, almond milk and vanilla protein powder.
The Mambas were formidable, not unbeatable. They lost their first game, 46 to 29, to a team from Texas.
Between games, Bryant headed into a restroom as a team of young boys from Fresno, Calif., gathered outside. “Ko-be, Ko-be, Ko-be,” they chanted, until he came out. Bryant emerged with a smile and posed for a photograph.
The Mambas won their next game, 35 to 29. The three girls who would ride on the helicopter the next day — Gianna Bryant, 13; Payton Chester, 13; and Alyssa Altobelli, 14 — combined for 17 points.
“Can I get a picture?” a 13-year-old boy asked Kobe Bryant as a black S.U.V. pulled up outside.
“I’ll get you tomorrow,” Bryant replied.