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Scottish holiday marred by police helicopter crash

GLASGOW, Scotland — Scotland's official holiday was transformed into a grim day of mourning Saturday as emergency crews searched the wreckage of a riverside pub smashed by a falling police helicopter. At least eight people died and more than a dozen remained hospitalized with serious injuries.

The Clutha, a popular Glasgow pub, was filled with revelers enjoying a local ska band on Friday night, the eve of St. Andrew's Day, named for the patron saint of Scotland and which is normally a celebration of Scottish culture and heritage.

Instead, Scotland's leader ordered flags at government buildings to be lowered to half-staff after the tragedy.

"This is a black day for Glasgow and Scotland, but it's also St. Andrew's Day, and it's a day we can take pride and courage in how we respond to adversity and tragedy," Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said.

There may be more bad news. Police said that a rescue and recovery operation is ongoing and that it wasn't clear what will be found once the aircraft's wreckage is removed. The process may take days.

That means more waiting for people who don't know if their loved ones were in the Clutha at the fateful moment when the helicopter fell from the sky, directly hitting the establishment.

Witnesses said it seemed to fall straight down into the roof of the pub. The crash Friday around 10:30 p.m. sent patrons fleeing through a cloud of dust. Witnesses spoke of people streaming out of the building covered in blood, with gashes and other injuries.

Ambulances rushed to the scene, taking the injured to nearby hospitals.

Local resident Paul Dundas, 26, said he heard a loud bang and looked out of his window to see a plume of dust rising above the pub. "At first I thought it was a firework," he said.

"People were covered in blood and dust," he said. "Other people were dragging them away from the bar and trying to get them out. Everyone was in shock, but people were helping and asking strangers if they were okay. I saw a couple help each other clean up their faces."

Chief Constable Stephen House said three of the dead were found in the helicopter, which was carrying two police officers and a civilian pilot.

They "were our colleagues," House said, bowing his head and taking a long pause and swallow.

He said that the five other fatalities were found inside the building and that 14 people remained hospitalized with serious injuries.

House wouldn't say if more people are believed to be inside the severely damaged pub. He said police won't know the situation until the wreckage is cleared.

It wasn't immediately clear what the helicopter was doing in the area prior to the crash. Police and air safety investigators say it's too early to speculate on why the Eurocopter EC135 T2 helicopter came down on the pub's roof, close to a helipad on the bank of the River Clyde. The twin-engine Eurocopter is widely used by police and ambulance services.

Police said the scene was extremely dangerous because the building was unstable.

"We are dealing with a very sensitive investigation and operation here," House said. "It will go on for many days yet."

The Clutha pub was packed at the time. Police said there were well over 100 people inside, listening to local ska band Esperanza.

Members of the band joined others in praising the rescue effort. "Despite the situation everyone was so helpful and caring of each other," the band wrote on its Facebook page.

Scottish holiday marred by police helicopter crash 11/30/13 [Last modified: Sunday, December 1, 2013 12:19am]
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