Federal investigators arrived in New York on Monday to begin what they said could be a long and complex investigation into what caused a helicopter chartered for a photo shoot to crash into the East River, killing all five passengers.
The American Eurocopter Corp. single-engine helicopter was removed from the river Monday and lifted onto a barge at 23rd Street to be taken to Floyd Bennett Field, where investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board were going to take it apart to learn why it suddenly crashed after the pilot, who survived, said the aircraft lost power.
At a news conference by the East River, NTSB board member Bella Dinh-Zarr said the agency hadn’t interviewed the pilot, Richard Vance of Danbury, Connecticut, but hoped to do so. The agency would look at a number of factors, including the performance of the engine, flotation devices on the aircraft and passenger safety harnesses. Officials said rescuers had problems extricating passengers from the downed aircraft as it lay submerged, upside down.
On Sunday after the accident, Vance told police at the 19th Precinct that a strap from one of the passengers’ seat restraints got entangled with the emergency fuel shut-off lever, causing the fuel flow to be interrupted, said a law enforcement official who didn’t want to be named.
The helicopter, a popular aircraft for private industry, tourism, the military and law enforcement, crashed into the river at 7:08 p.m. as Vance frantically alerted air traffic controllers that he was about to hit the water.
“Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” Vance was heard yelling, according to a recording provided by website LiveATC.net.
“East River … engine failure,” Vance continued in the moments before the helicopter hit the water, to the horror of bystanders along the East River bank.
An amateur video, posted on Twitter, shows the helicopter hit the water with its main rotor blades turning but at a slow speed, known in aviation as “autorotation,” which occurs when the force of air under the blades of a descending helicopter keeps them turning even when there is a lack of power.
Vance managed to climb from the aircraft and was rescued by Foxy 3, a tugboat from Staten Island that happened to be in the vicinity, a police official said.
But by the time NYPD and FDNY harbor units arrived, the helicopter, which seats six, was upside down and held up by flotation devices on its skids. Rescue crews had to cut the passengers out of their seat restraints before emergency medical teams could try to revive them. One police official said the flotation devices didn’t appear to inflate fully, although one industry expert said that sometimes a hard landing can damage them.
The five dead passengers were identified as: Brian McDaniel, 26; Trevor Cadigan, 26; Carla Vallejos Blanco, 29; Tristan Hill, 29; and Daniel Thompson, 34.
The passengers were all tightly harnessed into the helicopter as it went into the water and then flipped, making recovery difficult, officials said. Divers freed the passengers as the current in the frigid waters surged.
FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said rescue crews worked “very quickly, as fast as they could. That’s 50 feet of water there, it was a 4 mph current, temperature is below 40.”
Liberty Helicopters of Kearny, New Jersey, the operator of the tour, declined requests for an interview Monday, but released a statement on its website. “We are focused on supporting the families affected by this tragic accident and on fully cooperating with the FAA and NTSB investigations,” officials at Liberty Helicopters said. “These agencies have asked us to respect the investigative process by referring all press inquiries to them for any further comment.”
Dinh-Zarr said the agency was in the very early stages of its investigation and that it was too early to say what had happened to cause the crash. Dinh-Zarr, part of the NTSB “go” team handling the probe, said potential problems with the seat harnesses and the aircraft’s flotation devices, which did deploy but didn’t keep the craft upright, would be examined.
“When floats do inflate there are times when the helicopter will still not necessarily stay afloat so we’re going to look into that,“ Dinh-Zarr noted.
“I have not seen this type of accident happen,” Dinh-Zarr added. She briefed the media with Todd Gunther, the NTSB’s lead investigator in the case.
The single engine aircraft involved in the crash is an AS350B2 model, manufactured by American Eurocopter, a unit of Airbus Helicopters Inc. It was certified by the Federal Aviation Administration in October 2013 and according to the agency had no reported problems. Vance had been working for Liberty Helicopters since 2016. Before that he had been an instructor with Northeast Helicopters in Ellington, Connecticut. Officials at Northeast declined to comment Monday.
Neither the particular helicopter, Vance, nor the Eurocopter AS350 helicopter model, had any reported accidents or investigations which led to penalties, said the FAA.
A spokesman for Airbus Helicopters said the company had dispatched its own investigators to New York City to help the NTSB.
“Our thoughts and prayers remain with the families of the victims and with the survivor and his family, as we provide our full support to the NTSB in determining the cause of this accident,” Airbus said. The company declined to discuss the accident and the mechanics of the Eurostar aircraft further.
During the media briefing, Dinh-Zarr said the NTSB, assisted by the NYPD, FDNY, Office of Emergency Management and U.S. Coast Guard, would look at a variety of issues — including weather, air traffic control and operation — and wouldn’t speculate on possible causes. She did say it was legal for the aircraft to be flying with its doors open, as was apparently done to facilitate the passengers’ photography.
Bella Dinh-Zarr said Monday
“Since this was a photo flight, we will be working with the NYPD to recover any cameras or personal electronic devices from the aircraft that might paint an accurate digital portrait of the last moments of this flight,” she said.
According to a law enforcement official, Vance described a freak mishap with an emergency fuel shut-off lever as having caused the helicopter to suddenly lose power. Vance told cops that a strap from one of the passenger’s seat restraints caused the lever to move into the off position, severing the fuel flow to the engine, the official said.
An aviation industry expert, who didn’t want to be identified, said both the main fuel control lever and the emergency cutoff lever were located in the front portion of the aircraft between the pilot seat on the right side and a passenger seat located on the left. The seating configuration of the helicopter provides for four passenger seats in the rear.
Both levers can’t be knocked from their normal positions from above, the expert said. However, the emergency lever could be raised from its downward “off” position to an upright “on” if a harness or strap becomes entangled around it and is pulled upward, the expert said.
A hard landing can damage the flotation equipment, causing it to lose buoyancy, the expert said.
According to the FAA, Liberty Helicopters had, before Sunday night’s tragedy, a total of 16 accidents and incidents since 1995, including an August 2009 midair collision of a Liberty helicopter with a privately operated Piper Lance plane over the Hudson River, near Hoboken, New Jersey. The collision killed the helicopter pilot, his five tourist passengers from Italy and the pilot of the private plane.
With William Murphy, Alison Fox, Robert Brodsky and Ivan Pereira