The aircraft plunged over "2,000 feet per minute" before crashing into a California mountain

By Robyn Merrett
January 30, 2020 10:12 PM
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Thousands of people all over the world have been in a state of mourning following the tragic death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant. He was 41.

The late athlete died early Sunday morning in a horrific helicopter crash alongside his 13-year-old daughter Gianna as well as seven other beloved members of a close-knit California community: John Altobelli, Keri Altobelli, Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah Chester, Payton Chester, Christina Mauser and pilot Ara Zobayan.

Bryant’s wife Vanessa broke her silence on Bryant and Gianna’s deaths and revealed plans to help the families of the victims who lost their lives.

“We are completely devastated by the sudden loss of my adoring husband, Kobe — the amazing father of our children; and my beautiful, sweet Gianna — a loving, thoughtful, and wonderful daughter, and amazing sister to Natalia, Bianka, and Capri,” Vanessa, 37, wrote on Instagram on Wednesday.

“We are also devastated for the families who lost their loved ones on Sunday, and we share in their grief intimately. There aren’t enough words to describe our pain right now,” she continued. “I take comfort in knowing that Kobe and Gigi both knew that they were so deeply loved. We were so incredibly blessed to have them in our lives. I wish they were here with us forever. They were our beautiful blessings taken from us too soon.”

Kobe and Vanessa Bryant with their children
| Credit: Vanessa Bryant/Instagram

“To honor our Team Mamba family, the Mamba Sports Foundation has set up the MambaOnThree Fund to help support the other families affected by this tragedy,” Vanessa wrote. “To donate, please go to MambaOnThree.org. To further Kobe and Gianna’s legacy in youth sports, please visit MambaSportsFoundation.org.”

Here are all the details on the crash.

What Happened?

On Sunday, Jan. 26, Bryant and Gianna attended a 7 a.m. mass at the Cathedral of Our Lady Queen of the Angeles in Newport Beach, PEOPLE confirms.

Shortly after, at around 9:06 a.m., according to flight tracking site FlightRadar24.com, Bryant’s Sikorsky S-76B helicopter took off from John Wayne Airport in Orange County, California.

Bryant and the group were on their way to a youth basketball game at Bryant’s Mamba Academy in Thousand Oaks.

At around 10 a.m. the helicopter crashed into a mountain, killing everyone on board.

Kobe Bryant helicopter crash
| Credit: David McNew/Getty Images

During a press conference on Tuesday, Jennifer Homendy with the The National Transportation Safety Board announced that the aircraft — which had been flying in extremely foggy conditions — plunged over “2,000 feet per minute” before crashing.

“We know this was a high-energy impact crash, and the helicopter was in a descending left bank,” Homendy said.

Could the Crash Have Been Prevented?

Homendy went on to share that the helicopter was not equipped with a terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS) — something she believes could have helped pilot Zobayan.

TAWS is an on-board system aimed at preventing unintentional impacts with the ground. The system, which provides terrain information, could have alerted Zobayan that he was close to the hillside.

Ara Zobayan

Homendy explained that NTSB introduced the idea of implementing the system years ago following a 2004 helicopter crash in Galveston, Texas that killed 10 people. They asked that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) require all U.S. registered helicopters that seated 6 or more passengers be equipped with TAWS.

However, the FAA did not implement the recommendation and the proposal was closed. Homendy said the FAA has still failed to act on the advice.

The FAA did not immediately respond to PEOPLE’s request for comment.

Homendy continued, adding that the helicopter was also not equipped with a cockpit voice recorders (CVR) and flight data recorders (FDR). Like TAWS, NTSB recommended the use of cockpit voice recorders and flight data recorders to the FAA after a 2005 helicopter crash in the Baltic Sea that killed 12 people. The recommendation was also rejected, Homendy revealed.

An FDR preserves the recent history of the flight through the recording of dozens of parameters — while the CVR preserves the sounds of the cockpit, which can include conversations of the pilot.

NTSB also revealed on Tuesday that the aircraft could have avoided the hill had it been flying 20 to 30 feet higher.

However, NTSB investigator Bill English also noted that there were still surrounding hills that would have required an even higher altitude for clearance.

Kobe Bryant helicopter crash
| Credit: PG/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

“It’s important to realize that there’s not one hill,” English said during their Tuesday press conference. “It’s a ravine with undulating terrain, so the small outcropping that had the main impact in it, the main impact was about 20 to 30 feet from the top of that small hill. But there are actually other higher hills surrounding it.”

NTSB revealed during the press conference that they had finished its inspection and the investigation has been turned over to local authorities.

After compiling their findings, NTSB will release a preliminary report. However, a final report, which will provide further details on the cause of the crash, may take 18 months.

This is because investigators will look at maintenance records, debris, the weather and the pilot’s actions.

About the Pilot

It is still unclear whether the pilot had become disoriented during the flight or if there was a mechanical problem with the helicopter. One of Zobayan’s former students described the pilot as one of the best.

“He was as skilled and as talented as a pilot as you could get. With him, it was always safety first and above and beyond that, he was doing what he loved,” Adam Alexander told PEOPLE.

The Recovery of the Bodies

The Los Angeles County Medical Examiner said in a news release on Tuesday that the bodies of the nine victims of the Calabasas helicopter have been recovered.

“On Sunday afternoon, personnel from the department’s Special Operations Response Team (SORT) recovered three bodies from the helicopter wreckage located in the 4200 block of Las Virgenes Road in Calabasas,” the release said. “The next day, the search continued for the other six helicopter occupants. Soon after, their bodies were located, removed from the crash site and transported to the department’s Forensic Science Center.”

John Altobelli
| Credit: Orange Coast College/Twitter

After identifying Bryant, John, 56, Sarah, 46, and pilot Zobayan, 50, on Tuesday through “the use of fingerprints,” the Coroner’s Office identified the five remaining passengers “following round-the-clock testing and analysis of DNA,” the Coroner’s Office stated in a press release.

Those five included Gianna, Payton, 13, Alyssa Altobelli, 14, Keri Altobelli, 46, and Mauser, 38.

Cause of Death

The Coroner’s Office revealed body examinations were performed on all nine decedents.

Their causes of death were certified as “blunt trauma,” the Coroner’s office Wednesday press release stated. “The manner of death was certified as accident.”

The Coroner’s office said that all legal next of kin had been notified of their deaths.

All nine aboard the helicopter had already been identified by friends and family.

About the Victims

Bryant entered the NBA straight out of high school in the 1996 draft, becoming the first guard ever drafted directly out school. During his two decades with the Los Angeles Lakers, he went on to become an 18-time All-Star, 15-time member of the All-NBA team and 12-time All-Defensive team member.

In 2008, he was named NBA’s Most Valuable Player. After losing the 2008 NBA Finals, Bryant helped lead the Lakers to championships in both 2009 and 2010, earning him the Finals MVP award. Bryant also won championships with the Lakers in 2000, 2001 and 2002.

Bryant retired from the NBA after his 2015-2016 season, capping off his final game with 60 points. Then, he made a successful transition as an entrepreneur through his companies, even becoming the first NBA star to win an Oscar.

Gianna and Kobe Bryant
| Credit: Allen Berezovsky/Getty
Payton and Sarah Chester
| Credit: Facebook

In addition, he spoke of the joys of coaching his daughter Gianna and the Mamba Academy team she played on with her middle school friends.

Bryant is survived by wife Vanessa, 37, and their daughters Natalia, 17, Bianka, 3, and Capri, 7 months.

Weeks before their deaths, Bryant proudly spoke about how he had recently started watching NBA games again because of his daughter. “We just had so much fun because it was the first time I was seeing the game through her eyes,” the five-time NBA champion told former NBA players Matt Barnes and Stephen Jackson on the Showtime Basketball podcast All the Smoke. “It wasn’t me sitting there, you know, as an athlete or a player or something like that, and you know it’s like about me, and I don’t like that. It was her, she was having such a good time.”

And Gianna wished to continue her father’s legacy, according to Bryant. “The best thing that happens is when we go out and fans come up to me, and she’ll be standing next to me, and they’ll be like, ‘You gotta have a boy, you and [wife Vanessa] gotta have a boy, somebody else to carry on the tradition, the legacy,’” he said in a 2018 Jimmy Kimmel Live interview. “She’s like, ‘Oh, I got this. You don’t need a boy for that. I got this.’ I’m like, ‘That’s right, yes you do. You got this.’ ”

Sarah and her daughter Payton Chester of Orange County were also on board the aircraft.

Sarah is survived by her husband Chris and her two sons, Hayden and Riley, who are in 10th grade.

Christina Mauser
| Credit: Facebook

St. Margaret’s Episcopal School confirmed the news in a memo obtained by PEOPLE, in which the school said Payton was enrolled in eighth grade and Sarah served on its board of trustees.

“This is an unimaginable loss for the Chester family and the entire St. Margaret’s community,” read the memo. “We are a community in mourning. Our greatest strength is when our St. Margaret’s community pulls together with arms around one another, and this is one of those times.”

Payton was one of Gianna’s teammates on the Mamba Sports Academy girls basketball team.

Todd Schmidt, who identified himself as Payton’s elementary school principal, wrote on Facebook that Payton and her mom Sarah were “two gorgeous human beings.”

Schmidt told PEOPLE, “Payton was one of those kids that everyone was drawn to because she was so genuinely kind,” also adding, “She went out of her way to make sure people felt comfortable – she would seek out that kiddo who was alone and include them.”

Mauser was a girls basketball coach at Harbor Day School in Orange County and a coach for the Mamba Academy.

Her husband Matt confirmed the tragic news, writing 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.”

John Altobelli and family
| Credit: GoFundMe

John was the head baseball coach at Orange Coast College.

“It is with the heaviest of hearts that we announce the passing of Orange Coast College head baseball coach John Altobelli. He was a coach, a colleague, a mentor and a friend at OCC for 27 years,” the school — which is located in Costa Mesa — wrote. “Orange Coast College asks the media and the public to respect the privacy of John’s family and friends during this difficult time.”

Keri and her husband John were also parents to daughter Alexis Altobelli and son J.J. Altobelli, who works as a scout for the Red Sox.

Alyssa was a teammate of Gianna Bryant’s.

Their coach Bryant raved about Alyssa’s basketball talent in November, writing on Instagram, “This is GREAT defense by our mamba pg Alyssa Altobelli.”

A source told PEOPLE that Zobayan was “extremely experienced” as a pilot. “He had a lot of respect for flying and would never take risks. He knew the valley very well. The area where they crashed was not a new area for him. He was very familiar with that area,” the source said. “It’s just such a shock. There are no words to express how much Ara will be missed and how sad everyone is about the passengers that died. It’s just such a painful tragedy. So many families affected and so much pain.”

Why Were They Using a Helicopter to Get to the Game?

While chatting with Alex Rodriguez for Barstool Sports podcast The Corp with A-Rod and Big Cat, Bryant said that he would often spend a lot of time stuck in traffic while heading to practice for the Los Angeles Lakers from his home in Orange County. Traffic impeded his routine of dropping off and picking up the girls.

“Traffic started getting really, really bad,” said Bryant. “And I was sitting in traffic and I wound up missing like a school play, because I was sitting in traffic. … I had to figure out a way where I could still train and focus on the craft but still not compromise family time.”

RELATED: Helicopter Crash Victim Christina Mauser Was About to Celebrate Daughter’s 4th Birthday: Husband

“He and Vanessa had a deal that they would never fly on a helicopter together,” a source told PEOPLE of the couple, who tied the knot in 2001.

A different insider explained their decision to never fly together was “not fear-based.”

The Bryants “always considered what was best” for their daughters.

“It’s not necessarily because you are concerned something will happen, it’s just a precaution,” the source says of Kobe and Vanessa’s choice to fly separately. “A lot of couples with children make plans that are in the best interest of their children. It was the same for Kobe and Vanessa.”