A sightseeing helicopter ride for tourists quickly turned into a nightmare Tuesday after the chopper crashed into the East River immediately after takeoff, killing one passenger and injuring the four other people aboard, who were swiftly rescued.
The helicopter, piloted by its owner, Paul Dudley, 56, took off from the East 34th Street helipad about 3:15 p.m., but quickly began to struggle as it reached a height of just about 30 feet. It crashed into the river after apparently failing to return to the small helipad beside the FDR Drive.
Little was immediately known about what caused the crash. The copter, a single-engine Bell 206, took off from a helipad that many local residents have decried as a risk in the heavily populated area.
Around 75 firefighters responded, along with NYPD and Coast Guard, with the rescue hastened by a roving police Emergency Service Unit, Hercules, which immediately sprang into action.
Two women and one man were all pulled out within an hour. The pilot either swam to shore or was pulled to safety.
But the fourth passenger, an unidentified woman, was trapped in the wreckage and died at the scene, officials said. Her body was later pulled from the river bottom some 50 feet below.
Two female passengers remained hospitalized in critical condition, and the male passenger and Dudley were described "fine," police said.
The passengers, who knew the pilot, were all foreign, though it was unclear exactly where each lived.
Witnesses said they saw the aircraft wobble after takeoff, then, after a few spins, crashed into the river.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the crash was a tragedy.
"Our thoughts and prayers are with them all and their families, and we are hoping that the three people in the hospital will pull through," Bloomberg said.
The National Transportation Safety Board launched an investigation into the crash yesterday, and a spokesman said the probe could take anywhere from 12 to 18 months.
Retired NTSB investigator Alan Yurman speculated the chopper could have suffered from a malfunction of its tail rotor blade, which would jibe with witness descriptions of how the helicopter spun around before it crashed.
"That can be caused by a mechanical failure, or the blade hitting something, or something knocking off the tail rotor," Yurman told amNewYork.
The pilot in Tuesday’s accident was involved in an incident in 2006, when he crash-landed a small airplane in soccer fields near Calvert Vaux Park in Brooklyn after his engine sputtered out.
East Side residents said the helipad has long been a nuisance and a danger.
"People don't like the helicopters here," said Eunjeong Seo, 35, who lives nearby in Kips Bay. "There's tons of medical complexes here, and it's one thing to have medical copters coming in for medical reasons, but the danger is not merited for these tourism helicopter."
(With Erik Ortiz, Sheila Anne Feeney, Marc Beja and Amanda Dallas)
NYC chopper crashes
Aug. 2009: Nine people were killed, including five Italian tourists, when a tour helicopter and a small plane collided over the Hudson River.
July 2007: A Liberty Tours helicopter went down in the Hudson; the eight passengers were uninjured and rescued by passing pleasure boats.
June 2005: A helicopter carrying six tourists crashed into the East River near Wall Street. None were injured.
June 2005: A corporate chopper with eight business execs plunged into the East River, with some sustaining minor injuries. It was the second whirlybird accident in the same week.
Follow reporter Tim Herrera on Twitter: @tim_herrera