Rally ace Colin McRae dies in helicopter crash

SCOTTISH rally champion Colin McRae has been killed in a helicopter crash close to his Lanarkshire home.

The Twin Squirrel helicopter registered to the former world champion rally driver came down shortly after 4pm yesterday about 200 yards from his 17th-century mansion.

Police sources said the blue helicopter used by the 39-year-old multi-millionaire had exploded in a "fireball".

Eyewitness David Lowry, who lives nearby, said he watched as the helicopter plunged into a valley.

As many as four people are thought to have died in the crash. Jean-Eric Freudiger, McRae's agent, confirmed McRae had been piloting the helicopter.

Locals said they feared McRae had been travelling with another adult and two children. A Strathclyde Police spokeswoman confirmed there were no survivors. Officers were trying to establish who was on board and where the helicopter was travelling to and from.

"The damage has been so bad that we don't know how many people were on board. It might be one, it might be more," she said. "We just don't know at the moment."

She added that it could be some time before official identifications can be made.

Weather conditions at the time were deteriorating with strengthening winds and light rain. Members of the Department of Transport's Air Accidents Investigation Branch were travelling to the scene at Jerviswood, one mile north of Lanark last night.

The Scottish Ambulance Service confirmed that its own helicopter had been sent to the scene along with three ambulance crews. Strathclyde Fire Brigade also had units in attendance.

David Lowry, 48, who owns New Steadings Farm, just across the Mouse Water from McRae's home, saw the helicopter crash.

He said: "I was speaking to one of my friends on the farm. The helicopter came overhead and then dropped into the valley. After it disappeared I saw smoke rising from the trees and phoned the emergency services. I could not see what happened when it went down. It did not seem to be in any trouble. It was about half a mile from me and the helicopter seemed to be flying normally.

"It was navy blue in colour and I am led to believe it belongs to Colin McRae. It is up so often my cattle don't even flinch when it is overhead."

He added: "I know him well enough to say hello to, although I don't know him personally. If it turns out to be him it will have an unbelievable effect on the local community."

He added: "Colin is a very popular person around here. We only moved here seven years ago, but they are a Lanark family born and bred."

As darkness fell last night, police had erected an incident tent in the woods at the scene of the crash. Officers threw a 600-yard cordon around the house. Friends and relatives of the McRae family were gathering at the home of a neighbour, 300 yards from the McRae home.

McRae, born in Lanark in 1968, was the son of five-time British Rally Champion, Jimmy McRae. He was the first Briton to be named world champion when he won the event in the mid-1990s and was awarded an MBE by the Queen for his outstanding achievements.

He also produced popular and lucrative rally computer games, including Colin McRae Dirt.

McRae bought a home in Monaco in 1995, partly through his friendship with fellow Scot and Formula One driver David Coulthard. However, as his young family grew up, he spent more time back at his home in Lanarkshire, accepting the higher tax liability of living in Scotland. McRae and his wife Alison had two children, Hollie, nine, and five-year-old Johnny.

His brother, Alister, believed to be in Australia at the moment, is also a professional rally driver and has enjoyed some success, including winning the British Rally Championship in 1995.

In addition to the Lanark and Monaco properties, McRae had a home overlooking Lake Geneva and an apartment in Majorca.

He freely admitted enjoying risk-taking, celebrating his first major rallying win, which came in New Zealand, with a bungee-jump over a ravine.

In addition, he drove a Lamborghini and a series of high-powered motorcycles.