This story was originally published in Newsday on Oct. 5, 2011.
A single-engine helicopter carrying four British tourists crashed into the East River yesterday, killing one passenger, injuring three others and the pilot, and setting off a harrowing search and rescue effort.
The Bell 206B Jet Ranger plunged into the swift-moving East River about 3:22 p.m. and quickly sank in about 40 feet of water moments after taking off from the heliport at East 34th Street, officials said.
"From what we know so far, the pilot reported having trouble keeping aloft, and he tried to turn back, but crashed into the water just north of the landing pad," Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at a news conference at the heliport.
NYPD officials identified the pilot as Paul P. Dudley, who has a house in Southampton. The dead woman was identified as Sonia Marra, the daughter of two of the injured passengers, said NYPD spokesman Paul Browne. The fourth victim was a friend of the family, Browne said.
Witnesses said the blue and white aircraft rose quickly from the heliport and suddenly pitched toward the river before spinning out of control and slamming into the water.
Joseph Belez was watching helicopters from the riverfront and saw the crash.
"It was going up, and then all of a sudden it just spun itself and went down to the water," he told The Associated Press. "I was just watching it take off, and it was just all of a sudden spinning. It just went down. It was a shock. It really was."
Robert Dress, 36, of Kips Bay, had taken his 9-month-old son out to watch helicopters take off and land from the busy heliport when he saw the chopper crash.
"I thought I was going to see people bobbing up and down in the water. There was no one. . . . I didn't see anyone, then they just popped up."
Rescuers from the NYPD - some involved in a counterterrorism exercise nearby - and the FDNY were on the scene within minutes.
Det. Robert Murfield, of the NYPD emergency unit, donned a wet suit and swam out to the chopper, taking hold of one of the women, who had a severe gash to her head.
"She looked pretty bad. . . . Our main concern was keeping her head above water and doing what we can to try and preserve her life," Murfield said.
Browne said Marra, who turned 40 this week, was found in the backseat of the chopper. Paul Nicholson, 71, was treated at New York University Medical Center and released. He is Marra's father, Browne said.
Harriet Nicholson, 60, Marra's mother, and Helen Tamaki, 43, a friend, were both listed in critical but stable condition at Bellevue medical center last night.
FDNY firefighter Robert Lopez, 39, of Mamaroneck, said he jumped off the bulkhead by the heliport after getting into a wet suit and swam out to a man who was about 30 yards from the pier and 20 feet from the helicopter.
"He was in shock, distressed, saying there was somebody else in the helicopter still, 'Go get them,'" said Lopez, who is from Ladder Company 7 on East 29th Street in Manhattan.
Bloomberg said the victims are British nationals. Two lived in Portugal, two in Australia.
"It is our understanding that the passengers knew the pilot," he said. "They were all friends."
Robert J. Hantman, who identified himself as Dudley's friend and attorney, said the pilot told him "he did everything he could do to save them."
Hantman said Dudley manages the Linden Municipal Airport in Linden, N.J., and owns Linden Airport Services Corp., also in Linden.
The downed helicopter was towed out of the East River shortly before 7 p.m. and placed onto an Army Corps of Engineers barge. The helicopter's top propeller appeared broken in half as it was placed on a truck and taken to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn.
Model Bell 206B
Weight Up to 12,499 pounds
Speed 112 mph
31 feet, 2 inches
Height 9 feet, 6 1/2 inches
CRASHES INVOLVING BELL 206B
July 23, 2003
A New Jersey couple and three others died when a copter crashed into the side of a dormant volcano on the island of Kauai.
March 10, 2005
Three were killed when a U.S. Forest Service helicopter crashed near Lufkin, Texas.
Jan. 5, 2010
Three biologists with the California Department of Fish and Game and a pilot died when the copter hit a power line near Yosemite National Park.