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CEO of major Nigerian bank killed in helicopter crash in California's Mojave Desert

In this image taken from a National Transportation Safety Board video, Michael Graham of the NTSB, which is investigating a deadly helicopter crash that happened in Southern California's Mojave Desert speaks to the media in Barstow, Calif., Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024. The CEO of one of Nigeria's largest banks along with his wife and son were among those killed in Friday's crash.
AP
In this image taken from a National Transportation Safety Board video, Michael Graham of the NTSB, which is investigating a deadly helicopter crash that happened in Southern California's Mojave Desert speaks to the media in Barstow, Calif., Saturday, Feb. 10, 2024. The CEO of one of Nigeria's largest banks along with his wife and son were among those killed in Friday's crash.

The CEO of one of Nigeria's largest banks was killed Friday along with his wife and son when a helicopter they were riding in crashed near Interstate 15 in Southern California's Mojave Desert.

Herbert Wigwe, chief executive of Access Bank, was among the six people on board when the aircraft went down shortly after 10 p.m. All six people were killed, including two pilots and Bamofin Abimbola Ogunbanjo, former chair of NGX Group, the Nigerian stock exchange.

The deaths of Wigwe, his family and Ogunbanjo were confirmed Saturday by Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a former Nigerian finance minister who is now the director-general of the World Trade Organization.

"Terribly saddened by the news of the terrible loss of Herbert Wigwe ... his wife and son as well as Bimbo Ogunbanjo in a helicopter crash," Okonjo-Iweala wrote in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter. "May the souls of the departed rest in perfect peace."

The death of Wigwe, 57, shocked many in Nigeria and in the banking sector. He was widely seen as an industry leader, having been involved in two of the country's biggest banks, including Guaranty Trust Bank, where he was previously executive director.

Under Wigwe's leadership, Access Bank's assets and presence grew beyond borders in several African countries.

His death is "a terrible blow" for Nigeria and Africa's banking industry, Nigerian presidential spokesman Bayo Onanuga wrote on X. "Wigwe had a big vision to make Access Holdings (the parent company) Africa's biggest, with all the unquenchable thirst for acquisitions," Onanuga added.

Wigwe's interests also spanned the education sector. His private university, founded in Nigeria's oil-rich Niger Delta region where he was from, is scheduled to open in September. Last year he said the university was "an opportunity for me to give back to society."

"This is surreal and I am lost for words," Festus Keyamo, Nigeria's minister of aviation and aerospace development, wrote in a post on X. "May Almighty God comfort his aged parents and sibling ... his immediate family members, his staff, friends across Nigeria and dependents."

The crash happened south of I-15 near Halloran Springs Road, about 75 miles (120 kilometers) northeast of Barstow, according to Michael Graham of the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash.

Graham said he did not have information about the two crew members, a pilot and a safety pilot. The aircraft did not have a cockpit voice recorder or a flight data recorder and was not required to have them, he added.

The Airbus EC-130 left Palm Springs Airport at around 8:45 p.m. on Friday and was traveling to Boulder City, Nevada, Graham said. Boulder City is about 26 miles (40 kilometers) southeast of Las Vegas, where the Kansas City Chiefs and the San Francisco 49ers are set to play in Super Bowl LVIII on Sunday.

It was a charter flight operated by Orbic Air LLC. Several people traveling on I-15 witnessed the crash and called 911, Graham said, and he urged them to contact the NTSB with more details, including photos and videos.

Witnesses reported that it was raining with a "wintry mix" at the time of the crash, according to Graham. People also reported a fire on the helicopter plus some downed power lines.

"This is the beginning of a long process. We will not jump to any conclusions," Graham said during a news conference Saturday night. He also "expressed our deepest sympathies to the families and loved ones of those who lost their lives in this terrible tragedy."

The crash site is not far from the California-Nevada border. Halloran Springs Road crosses the highway in an area known to travelers for an abandoned gas station with a sign declaring "Lo Gas" and "Eat." It's a remote area of the desert, with an elevation of nearly 3,000 feet (914.40 meters), and about a 60- to 80-mile (100- to 130-kilometer) drive from Las Vegas.

The crash came just three days after a U.S. Marine Corps helicopter went down in the mountains outside San Diego during historic downpours, killing five Marines.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The Associated Press