Investigators arrived yesterday at the site where a helicopter crashed into the frigid waters of New York City’s East River, killing five passengers, with only the pilot surviving.
Moments before the Sunday evening crash, the pilot sent a Mayday call over his radio, saying the engine had failed, according to recordings posted online.
The red helicopter, which had been privately chartered by a group of professional and amateur photographers, hit the water and turned upside down at about 7pm EDT (2300 GMT) near the northern end of Roosevelt Island, just east of Manhattan.
National Transportation Safety Board officials huddled on a floating dock near the crash site yesterday as they began an investigation into the cause.
At least two of the passengers were dead by the time rescue divers arrived, police and fire department officials said.
The other three passengers, who had to be cut from the helicopter’s safety harnesses, were declared dead at the hospital.
The pilot managed to free himself from a safety harness and was later discharged from a hospital. The New York Police Department identified him as Richard Vance, 33, but declined to release the victims’ identities until their families were notified.
Vance told investigators a passenger’s bag may have accidentally activated the helicopter’s emergency fuel shutoff switch, CNN and NY1, a New York cable news channel, reported, citing unnamed law enforcement officials.
A police spokesman declined to confirm the reports.
Commercial helicopters typically have the switch in case the engine catches fire, according to Jeremy Conley, a pilot and flight instructor at Helicopter Flight Training Inc in Ronkonkoma, New York.
Video of Sunday’s crash appeared to show the helicopter “in an autorotative descent,” with its rotors spinning solely on momentum instead of engine power as it crashed, Conley said.
The passengers, including two men from Texas, were photographers who had booked the flight to capture the city skyline, the New York Daily News reported, citing a photographer who had met the group at a safety briefing.
The helicopter was chartered from Liberty Helicopters, police said. The New Jersey-based company said on its website it has the largest fleet in the Northeast and had an “unparalleled” safety record.
The company did not respond to a request for comment.
Liberty Helicopters has been involved in at least two other crashes, according to news accounts, including a mid-air collision with a small plane in August 2009 over the Hudson River that killed nine people.
In July 2007 one of its helicopters went down in the Hudson with a pilot and seven passengers aboard, all of whom were rescued.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators look at the scene of the wreckage of a chartered Liberty Helicopters chopper that crashed into the East River late on Sunday.