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KOMO helicopter crash hits home on South Whidbey
South Whidbey is mourning the loss of a well-known and respected news photographer and videographer this week.
Bill Strothman, 62, died Tuesday, March 18, in the KOMO TV News helicopter crash in Seattle. He had long ties with Whidbey Island and leaves behind grieving family and friends in the Freeland area, including his sister Loretta Martin.
“He was the best man I have ever known,” said Martin, of her younger brother.
Born on Christmas, she described Strothman as a gift, and a man of impeccable professional and personal character who earned the respect of everyone he met.
“He was a really, really nice person,” said Mike Small, also of Freeland and a lifelong friend. “Probably the best I’ve ever known.”
Similarly, Ann Pearsall, another childhood friend of Strothman’s and a Freeland resident, said that although they lost contact over the years, she will always remember Strothman as a kind and generous man, and the person who introduced her to her husband, Bruce Pearsall.
“He was a good friend,” she said.
Strothman lived in Bothell, but he and Martin have roots on South Whidbey. Their parents purchased the second commercial property available in Freeland near the old McQueens gas station on Main Street shortly after WWII. They later purchased a home on Mutiny Bay, where the siblings spent summers roaming the beach.
Whidbey never left Strothman’s heart, said Martin, and he recently purchased a condo in Coupeville where he planned to retire with his wife, Nora McDonnell Strothman.
“He was planning on staying here the rest of his life, he loved it so much,” Martin said.
The helicopter accident occurred early Tuesday morning as the aircraft was taking off from the helipad on top of Fisher Plaza. What went wrong remains unclear, but the helicopter fell to the street below and burst into flames.
Pilot Gary Pfitzner was also killed in the accident, and a third man on the ground was seriously burned. The cause remains under investigation.
Martin, a longtime former Langley Chamber of Commerce director, learned of the crash just a few minutes after it occurred. She had just woken up and turned on KOMO news, as is her habit, and saw footage of the accident. She immediately called her brother’s cell phone, but no one answered.
Subsequent calls confirmed her worst fears and the days since the accident have been something of a blur.
“I didn’t sleep for 30 hours from when I saw that first ball of fire ... I just paced the house,” she said.
The support of family has been the biggest help in coping with the sudden and tragic loss, she said, but losing Strothman was particularly difficult because she lost a sister years ago in another accident.
“Bill and I were all that was left,” she said.
The news struck Small hard too. Meeting on the beaches of Mutiny Bay in the 1960s, the two enjoyed a lifelong friendship and many adventures, from a stint in Hawaii to bicycle trips across the mountains.
Small said his friend was a remarkable man, a person who took life in stride and never seemed to get angry about anything.
“Except for the time I dropped a boat anchor on his toe,” said Small, chuckling with the memory.
Martin said her brother was known for his gentle disposition and his caring approach to both his personal and professional life. Having spent 10 years in broadcast journalism, she described him as an “old school” reporter who respected both the story and sources.
“There was not an ounce of tabloid in my brother,” she said.
And that’s not just sibling boasting. Strothman earned 13 Emmy awards over his career as a photographer and videographer. Martin noted that his death spurred condolences from people across the globe.
“I’ve been totally blown away,” Martin said. “We’ve gotten emails from all over the world.”
“I always said he was the best Christmas present we ever got,” she said.
Strothman leaves behind two children, son Dan Strothman and daughter Heidi Heath. A private service for family and friends will be held next Saturday, March 29, in Bothell.
Martin said those wishing to make donations can give them to Good Cheer, a charity she says Strothman long admired.