(CNN) — Authorities found eight bodies Saturday in the ruins of a Glasgow pub struck by a police helicopter and feared more would be discovered as they slowly explored the unstable building.
But it might have been much worse, according to a senior journalist who saw the crash.
The downtown Clutha Bar was packed with about 150 people listening to a band about 10:15 p.m. Friday, but far more people would have been endangered just a short walk away in Glasgow’s central shopping district, said Gordon Smart, editor of the Scottish Sun newspaper.
From a nearby parking deck, Smart watched the helicopter tumble into the bar and waited for an explosion and fireball. A blast might have killed hundreds in the busy area, Smart said.
Instead, he said, there was an “eerie silence.”
“I think it’s a miracle that more people didn’t die,” Smart told CNN.
Three perish on helicopter, at least five on ground
Three of the dead were two police officers and the civilian pilot of the helicopter, Chief Constable Stephen House of Police Scotland said. Five more victims had been inside the pub.
Fourteen people remain seriously injured in Glasgow hospitals, House said. Earlier, police said 32 in total were taken to local hospitals.
House said the rescue and recovery operation was “very sensitive” and would continue for many days.
“You can imagine the terror of the situation when a helicopter came through the top of the building — there were well over 100 people (there),” he said, as he praised those who helped pull the injured from the rubble.
Police won’t know the final situation until the helicopter can be removed from the building, he added.
‘Fell from the sky like a stone’
Smart was on top of a six-story parking deck when he heard a gargling sound “like a car running out of petrol but incredibly loud.”
“I looked around, and in front of me, between 500 feet and 1,000 feet in the air, I could see a helicopter in distress. And then suddenly it just completely lost power and fell from the sky like a stone and tumbled over, nose over tail,” Smart said.
From his vantage point in front of the pub, Smart could not see the helicopter after impact.
‘What I did see, and it’s something that will stick with me for the rest of my life, was Glaswegian people running toward the scene, not away from the scene, people running to help, not running away from what could have been a huge explosion,” Smart said.
Grief and pride
The head of the Scottish government, First Minister Alex Salmond, said it was a “black day for Glasgow and for Scotland.”
But, he said, people should take heart from the swift response of emergency responders and the “instinctive courage of ordinary Glaswegians” in the face of adversity.
“As First Minister, it’s a day we can take great pride in how we’ve responded to this extraordinary tragedy,” he said. Salmond said that Saturday is St. Andrew’s Day, Scotland’s national day.
British Prime Minister David Cameron extended his deepest sympathies to those who lost loved ones, and he praised emergency responders and “the bravery of ordinary Glaswegians who rushed to help.”
Inside: Surreal quiet before alarm
The helicopter struck the pub as patrons listened to the Esperanza band, which had taken the stage a short time earlier.
“Most of the helicopter appeared to be inside the pub,” said Jim Murphy, a UK member of parliament who arrived at the site moments later and saw people scrambling out to get out. Murphy represents a portion of Glasgow.
Patrons described a surreal quiet, followed by alarm.
“We were watching the band and there was kind of like a (roof) panel fell, there was a whoosh of dust, said Grace Maclean. “Then we laughed that the band said, ‘We didn’t think we were going to bring the roof down,'” Maclean said.
“The roof didn’t come down. …It didn’t come completely down anyway,” Maclean said.
“No one had a clue,” she said. “There was no explosion. No bang. It was really quiet.”
But it quickly became apparent something was wrong, and amid the choking dust there was an outburst of noise from the patrons.
“Everyone was yelling (for) their friends, but everyone seemed to find everyone,” Maclean said.
Band manager Gary Anderson described his bewilderment when he heard “a loud bang followed by lots of debris, smoke, stuff coming coming towards where I was standing at the door.”
People he knew pulled him outside into the street, he said, where he could see the rotor blades sticking out of the building’s roof.
“The fire brigade, paramedics, police were all there within minutes and everybody was just helping folk who could get out, just shouting on them because at this time you couldn’t really see much inside, you were just trying to help people out and shouting to them, ‘come here, come here’ towards the doors,” he said.
“There were people staggering out, there were lots of people coming out with blood pouring from their head and covered with all sorts of just debris from whatever it was had happened.”
In a Facebook posting, the band indicated that all its members made it out safe.
“It seems that the band are all OK. Not so sure about everyone else,” the post said.
A later post, by the band’s bass guitar player, spoke of the realization “that it is all definitely horribly real. Despite the situation everyone was so helpful and caring of each other. The police, ambulances, firefighters all did a stellar job and continue to do so today in extremely difficult conditions.”
Smoke and people running
Christina O’Neill, who saw the crash from her apartment across the street, said she heard what sounded like a low-flying airplane.
“I thought that didn’t sound right for a couple of seconds,” she said.
After the sound of impact, she saw smoke and people running from the pub.
“I know there were a lot of people lying on the ground kind of getting looked into,” she said.
The pub’s Facebook page contained numerous posts from people concerned about the incident.
Bond Air Services, which reportedly owns the helicopter involved, said it was working with police and emergency services.
“Our thoughts are with those who have been affected by this tragic incident,” the company said in a statement.
By David Simpson and Chelsea J. Carter
CNN’s Laura Smith-Spark, Bharati Naik, Greg Botelho, Nic Robertson and Elwyn Lopez contributed to this report.