OLYMPIA, Wash., March 19 (Reuters) - A motorist who suffered deep burns when a news helicopter crashed near Seattle's Space Needle and burst into flames was improving a day after the fatal accident and had resumed breathing independently, a hospital spokeswoman said on Wednesday.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, which killed a pilot and a photographer who had been on the aircraft when it smashed into a street in a popular downtown tourist area that is also home to several museums.
The crash set three vehicles on fire. The occupants of two of the vehicles escaped unscathed but the third motorist scrambled out of one of the cars engulfed in flames.
The injured driver, Richard Newman, 38, suffered burns over 20 percent of his body and will require surgery, said Harborview Medical Center spokeswoman Susan Gregg.
"He's still serious but improving in the intensive care unit," said Gregg, who added that medical staff on Tuesday evening removed a breathing tube emergency responders had placed in Newman before rushing him to the hospital.
The two people killed in the crash of the helicopter were pilot Gary Pfitzner, 59, who worked for Helicopters Inc which operated the helicopter for the KOMO television station, and photographer Bill Strothman, 62, who shot video for KOMO but had retired from the company and worked as a freelancer, according to the station.
Illinois-based Helicopters Inc, a provider of news-gathering choppers that has acknowledged the helicopter was one of its own, has pledged to cooperate with the NTSB in its probe, said company president Stephen Lieber in a statement.
Police closed down streets around the crash scene on Tuesday as authorities cleared wreckage and conducted their investigation, but cleanup occurred faster than expected and the street where the crash occurred has been re-opened to traffic, according to the Seattle mayor's office.
The Seattle Monorail, which runs near the crash scene, and the Space Needle had been closed on Tuesday but both were back to normal operations on Wednesday, the mayor's office said. (Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Wash.; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and James Dalgleish)