A charter helicopter carrying six people, including the co-founder of Nigeria’s biggest bank by assets, crashed in a Southern California desert area near the Mojave National Preserve, authorities and family members said. Everyone aboard the aircraft died.
Herbert Wigwe, 57, co-founder of Access Bank, was among the victims, family members from his home village of Isiokpo said.
Abimbola Ogunbanjo, who was president of the National Council of the Nigeria Stock Exchange from 2017 to 2021, and served as the group chairman of the Nigerian Exchange Group Plc from 2021 to 2022, also was confirmed dead by a family member in Lagos.
Authorities said an Airbus EC130 helicopter crashed at about 10:08 p.m. on Friday with six people on board. The scene of the crash was determined to be east of the 15 Freeway, near Halloran Springs Road, the San Bernardino County Sheriff-Coroner Department said on Saturday. The department later said all aboard died.
“The identities of the deceased will be released once positive identification has been made and next of kin notifications have been made,” a sheriff’s statement said.
The National Transportation Board, which was investigating on scene, said those aboard were a pilot, a secondary safety pilot and four passengers.
Today and always, let us remember that life is a precious gift – a chance to breathe, feel, love, experience and connect.
— Herbert Wigwe, C.F.R (@HerbertOWigwe) January 19, 2024
The helicopter went down near Baker, a town of 700 people about 95 miles southwest of Las Vegas, said Peter Knudson, a spokesperson for the NTSB.
The aircraft took off from Palm Springs Airport around 8:45 p.m. and was en route to Boulder City, Nevada, authorities said.
Logs from the California Highway Patrol show there was rain and snow in the area at about the time of the crash.
Witnesses also reported that it was raining with a “wintry mix” at the time of the crash, according to NTSB board member Michael Graham. People also reported a fire on the helicopter when it hit the ground plus some downed power lines.
The aircraft did not have a cockpit voice recorder or a flight data recorder and was not required to have them, he added.
The helicopter was flying a charter flight operated by Orbic Air LLC of Burbank. Several people traveling the 15 Freeway witnessed the crash and called 911, Graham said, and he urged them to contact the NTSB with more details, including photos and video. The agency can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
Graham said French investigators will be involved in the probe, as the helicopter was manufactured in France.
The NTSB investigation crew will travel to the scene on Sunday to collect and examine evidence, and to map the site.
“This is the beginning of a long process,” Graham said. “We will not jump to any conclusions.”
Graham said that the full NTSB investigation could last up to two years.
Halloran Springs Road crosses over the 15 Freeway in an area known to travelers for an abandoned gas station with a sign declaring “Lo Gas” and “Eat.” It’s located in a remote area of the Mojave Desert, with an elevation of nearly 3,000 feet
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The crash comes less than a week after a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter crashed in the mountains outside San Diego on Tuesday during historic downpours. Five Marines were killed.
Boulder City is about 26 miles southeast of Las Vegas, where the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers are set to play in Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday.
On his X account, Wigwe posted in January: “Today and always, let us remember that life is a precious gift – a chance to breathe, feel, love, experience and connect. Let’s honor this gift by living with purpose, kindness, and gratitude, making every moment count … Let us number our days.”
Wigwe started his professional career with Coopers & Lybrand Associates, an international firm of chartered accountants, before spending a decade at Guaranty Trust Bank. In 2004 he co-engineered the acquisition of local lender Access Bank where he assumed the post of deputy managing director and eventually became chief executive officer in January 2014.
He was building a new $500 million university outside the southern city of Port Harcourt to help students hone skills needed for the finance and technology industries in Africa’s most-populous nation, he told Bloomberg in an interview in November. Wigwe planned to teach and mentor students and also engage some of the country’s biggest entrepreneurs including billionaire Aliko Dangote, Africa’s richest man, to teach at the university.
“To get the next set of leaders in banking, you need to create the right education for them,” Wigwe told Bloomberg from his office in the 14-story Access Bank headquarters overlooking a part of the Lagos lagoon.
Ogunbanjo started his professional career as a banker with Chase Manhattan Bank Nigeria in 1985 before he re-qualified as a legal practitioner and joined the law firm of Chris Ogunbanjo & Co in 1990, where he held the position of managing partner until his death, according to a biography from his firm.
He joined the Nigerian Stock Exchange in 2011 and served in various capacities.
Bloomberg, the Associated Press and staff writers Hunter Lee and Emily Holshouser contributed to this report.