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5 passengers dead after helicopter plunges into New York City's East River; the pilot survived

March 12, 2018 12:12 pm Updated: March 12, 2018 12:13 pm

A helicopter plunged into the frigid waters of New York's East River on Sunday night, killing five of the six people on board, authorities said.

The red helicopter crashed into the river near Roosevelt Island, between Manhattan and Queens, at about 7 p.m., police said. Videos captured by witnesses show the helicopter descending quickly, capsizing and tilting onto its side, its rotor blades still spinning in the water.

The pilot managed to free himself and call out for help from a flotation device, witnesses told reporters at the scene. A fire boat took the pilot to shore, where an ambulance took him to a hospital, New York City Fire Department Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said at a Sunday-night news conference, adding that the pilot is "okay."


The five passengers on the helicopter were all "tightly harnessed," so emergency fire and police responders had to cut the harnesses to remove them, Nigro said. Two of the passengers were pronounced dead in the initial hours after the crash, while three others remained in hospitals in critical condition. Early Monday, a New York Police spokesman confirmed that all five passengers had died.

Authorities had not released the names of the deceased early Monday.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating the crash, and an NTSB team arrived at the scene Monday morning.

The helicopter, a Eurocopter AS350, was a private charter commissioned for a photo shoot, said James P. O'Neill, commissioner of the New York City Police Department. It is owned by Liberty Helicopters, a New Jersey-based company that claims to be the "largest and most experienced helicopter sightseeing and charter service in the Northeast," according to its website. Providing sightseeing trips since 1990, the company advertises "unparalleled safety records."

A spokesperson for Liberty Helicopters was not immediately available for comment. FlyNYON, a New Jersey company that runs the tours, was also unreachable.

Fire and police teams worked in below-40-degree temperatures and 50-foot-deep water with 4-mph currents to remove the passengers from the helicopter, said Nigro, the fire commissioner.

"It took a while for the divers to get these people out," he said. "They worked very quickly, as fast as they could."

"It's a great tragedy that we had occur here on an otherwise quiet Sunday evening," Nigro added.

Witnesses told NY1 that they saw the helicopter drop into the water, submerge and turn onto its side.

"For about a minute and a half, no one came out of the water," Brianna Jesme told a NY1 reporter. "Then we saw one guy climb onto the raft and he was yelling for help."

Witness Celia Skvaril told the reporter she saw the man float all the way down the river on the raft but did not see anyone else emerge from the water.

"It was a pretty hard hit and then it flipped over," Skvaril, 23, told the New York Daily News. "We didn't see the helicopter anymore and then a yellow raft popped up and again we didn't see or hear anyone until we saw a person on top of the raft screaming and yelling for help and waving."

Video footage on Twitter shows a man wrapped in a white blanket walking alongside emergency responders on East End Avenue, near the Upper East Side, after the crash. Other videos show emergency responders performing CPR on a victim on a stretcher being loaded onto an ambulance.

The helicopter was one of three that took off from a helipad in New Jersey early Sunday evening for a flying tour of New York City, said Eric Adams, an aviation writer who was a passenger in a different helicopter. The flights cater to tourists and to amateur and professional photographers, like Adams, who want to take aerial pictures of the city.

He said all the passengers boarding the three helicopters had attended a safety briefing, which included a 10-minute video, and were transported by bus to the terminal, where they were asked to leave their belongings. Before the flights took off and as he was getting his camera gear ready, Adams said he talked to two young men whom he believes were among the victims.

"They were both very excited about the flight; they were trying to figure out the best selfies for their cameras," Adams said. "When I got to the terminal, one of the guys … he asked about going on the flight, if I'd done this before. Just figuring out what to expect."

The helicopters took off within about 30 seconds of each other, Adams said, and the aircraft carrying the victims was the last one to leave.

Minutes into the half-hour trip - and not long after flying over the Statue of Liberty - Adams, who was sitting in the front seat, heard his pilot talking to an air traffic controller.

"He was being instructed [to] look for the other helicopter because there was a mayday," Adams said. "The helicopter apparently went down."

After Adams and the others landed back at the terminal in New Jersey, his pilot told him that the other helicopter had crashed in the East River. He said the pilot had initially thought that the passengers survived.

Back in the terminal's locker room to retrieve his belongings, Adams saw the bags of the young men he had talked to earlier that day.

"That's when it kind of really dawned: That helicopter isn't coming back," Adams said.

Questions were raised Monday about whether the pilot could have saved, or tried to save, his passengers. Because the helicopter was flown with the doors off, passengers wore harnesses over their shoulders and between their legs, Adams said. On their back, between their shoulder blades, was a metal ring attached to a carabiner and tethered to the floor.

"You're in there, you're anchored," Adams said. "You can lean out as far as you want and you're not going to fall out of the helicopter. But you're also belted in."

He added: "There's no way those people could've gotten out of the helicopter. Not with the training they had. Not even me and this is my third time … When you're anchored at your shoulder blade, you can't reach that."

The helicopter, with a tail number N350LH, took off from New Jersey at 6:56 p.m. Sunday., a flight-tracking website, shows the aircraft passing by the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge before the flight ended in the middle of the East River just after 7 p.m.

The flight lasted just 11 minutes.

Travis Howard, a St. Louis resident, told The Post that his family was panicking Sunday night because they had not heard from his 26-year-old brother-in-law, who they believed may have been on the helicopter.

His brother-in-law, a video journalist who moved to New York City a few months ago, posted an Instagram story showing him riding in a helicopter with other people shortly before the crash occurred. In the video, Howard's brother-in-law is seen smiling and laughing, with three people sitting behind him as the helicopter appears to be taking off. One of the men behind him flashes him a thumbs-up. The video captures a view of a river and a bridge, the sun setting in the distance.

At about midnight, Howard had tried contacting police and three hospitals and had not yet determined whether his relative was among those who died. The man's immediate family members had not been able to reach him all night, and had not heard anything from him since he posted his Instagram story. Howard did not know whether the helicopter trip was in any way related to his work as a video journalist.

"It's just tough not being able to speak to anyone or not having any information," Howard said. "It's very much so a panic."

Shortly after 2 a.m., Howard received a call back from the NYPD. His brother-in-law, police told him, was among the deceased. Authorities have not confirmed to the public that he was among the dead, and Howard asked that his brother-in-law's name not yet be identified.

A number of plane and helicopter crashes over New York City's East River and Hudson River have claimed lives in the past several years. In 2009, a tourist helicopter operated by the same company collided with a small private plane over the Hudson River, sending both aircraft plunging into the water and killing nine people. A crash over the East River in October 2011 left three people dead. Two others survived.

And in 2009, Capt. "Sully" Sullenberger glided his US Airways Charlotte-bound plane to safety in the icy waters of the Hudson River, expertly evacuating passengers and crew members. All 155 people on board survived the episode, which was depicted in the 2016 movie "Sully," starring Tom Hanks.