This story was reported by Lisa Colangelo, Lauren Cook, Anthony DeStefano, Zachary R. Dowdy, Nicole Fuller, Patricia Kitchen, Rachel O'Brien, Ivan Pereira and Ellen Yan. It was written by Fuller.
The pilot of a helicopter that crashed in midtown Manhattan was certified both as a commercial pilot and a flight instructor, and was rated for rotor wing craft by the Federal Aviation Administration, the agency said Tuesday.
Tim McCormack, 58, of upstate Clinton Corners, was alone when the Agusta A109E helicopter he was flying went down Monday afternoon on the roof of a skyscraper on Seventh Avenue between 51st and 52nd streets. The fiery wreck forced the evacuation of the 54-story AXA Equitable building.
McCormack had near vision and needed glasses, according to his FAA certification.
The NTSB was at the crash site Tuesday to survey the wreckage; a private contractor will remove the debris, according to the FDNY, which responded to the crash.
The crash occurred at 1:43 p.m. in restricted air space; at the time, weather conditions were rainy and foggy, with ground visibility of a mile and a quarter, according to the National Weather Service. The cloud ceiling was 500 feet.
The aircraft left the 34th Street Heliport at 1:32 p.m. and crashed 11 minutes later, said NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill.
The helicopter’s flight path took it into restricted airspace just blocks from Trump Tower, on Fifth Avenue between 56th and 57th streets. Its intended destination was thought to be its home base at a New Jersey airport.
The crash brought to mind the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorism attacks, said Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.
“You have a level of PTSD, right, from 9/11,” Cuomo said near the high rise. “I remember that morning all too well. So as soon as you hear an aircraft hit a building, I think my mind goes where every New Yorker’s mind goes.”
This time, Cuomo said, it was not a terrorist attack.
Helicopter traffic over Manhattan was heavily regulated following a 1977 crash that killed five on board after the aircraft hit the roof of the midtown Pan Am Building, now the MetLife Building. The FAA banned aircraft below 3,000 feet within a 1-mile radius of Trump Tower after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016.
Mayor Bill de Blasio, speaking on CNN, said the pilot in Monday’s crash had not checked in with LaGuardia Airport’s tower — a requirement when attempting to fly in restricted airspace around Trump Tower.
Video showed the helicopter flying overhead and indicated “very erratic actions by a pilot in control,” the mayor said.
“It did not look like a helicopter that was crashing or losing altitude or anything like that,” De Blasio continued. “It looked like a series of purposeful moves that were very erratic. So we need to know a lot more about what was happening with this individual that he made this decision to take off. … I’m having trouble following why he would have gone back up over midtown Manhattan if his destination was well south. … Something doesn’t follow here.”
The helicopter was based at Linden Airport in Linden, New Jersey, said Paul Dudley, the airport’s manager. Dudley said the pilot worked for the helicopter’s owner, Daniele Bodini, who commutes to the city from upstate.
American Continental Properties, which was founded by Bodini, said in a statement identifying McCormack that the pilot had flown for the company for the past five years. He had been certified in 2004 to fly helicopters and single-engine airplanes.
“Our hearts are with his family and friends,” the company said.
McCormack was a respected, experienced flyer who previously worked for one of the area’s largest helicopter and charter tour companies but left to fly exclusively for Bodini, the former United Nations ambassador from the Republic of San Marino, Dudley said.
The pilot had dropped off his boss at the East 34th Street Heliport shortly before the helicopter went down, the airport official said.
“The weather that came through here, boy, if he got caught in that, he had his hands full,” said Dudley, a Southampton Town resident.
Office workers said the helicopter’s impact made the building shake as if there had been an earthquake.
“About two minutes after that, we had security run in and say, ‘Everybody get out of the building. Go down the staircase,' " said Nathan Hutton, who works at BNP Paribas Bank on the 29th floor. “When they said that we had a helicopter that landed on the top of the building, I’m like, ‘How? That’s like weird.’ "
Hutton said he tried to remain calm and could smell smoke as he and others made their way out of the building.
“ ‘Nothing bad is gonna happen’ or at least that’s what you tell yourself to keep everybody calm,” Hutton said. “ ‘No one is gonna panic and go all nuts.’ "
The National Transportation Safety Board, along with the NYPD and FBI, is investigating the crash, O’Neill said.
The first 911 call reporting the crash came in at about 1:43 p.m., said FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro at the same news conference.
“Firefighters had to deal with a fire on the 50th story, which is extraordinary,” O’Neill said.
When Lt. Adrienne Walsh of the FDNY’s Rescue One arrived at the building, she said she and other firefighters rode the elevator to the 51st floor and then scaled several flights of stairs to the roof. Once at the crash site, Walsh said, she saw the helicopter’s wreckage and a fire fed by fuel and other material that “burned very hot.”
Walsh described the crash site as a sunken area on the roof with a catwalk around it that fit into a space she estimated was about 25 feet by 40 to 50 feet. She didn’t see any structural damage to the building.
The helicopter, manufactured by Pratt & Whitney, is a two-engine aircraft that can carry one to two crew members and six to seven passengers, according to globalair.com, a marketplace for aircraft.
Melvin Douglas, 50, of Manhattan, was at the nearby Winter Garden Theatre at the time of the crash.
“I heard a big boom and I saw the smoke,” he said. “I thought it was an explosion in the building, I didn’t think it was a helicopter.”
The building, billed as an “elite” 50-story office tower, houses restaurants, a gym club, an auditorium and other amenities for its tenants. It was jointly purchased three years ago by the Los Angeles-based CommonWealth Partners, a real estate investment company, and the California Public Employees’ Retirement System.
It has about 1.7 million square feet, according to real estate websites, and was built in 1985.
Tenants include Le Bernardin, Maison Kayser and the food hall Urbanspace. The building is also the U.S. headquarters of AXA Financial, a subsidiary of French-based insurance and banking company AXA, as well as offices for BNP Paribas, Citibank and the international law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher.
Trump was briefed on the crash and praised the first responders.
“Phenomenal job by our GREAT First Responders who are currently on the scene. THANK YOU for all you do 24/7/365! The Trump administration stands ready should you need anything at all,” the president tweeted.
He also contacted Cuomo and offered help, according to a top aide to the governor.
Helicopter crashes in New York City —
May 15, 2019: A helicopter crash-lands in the Hudson River near a busy Manhattan heliport. The pilot escapes with just a minor hand injury. There were no passengers on board, but a dockworker sustains an injury when he slips while trying to get out of the way of the descending aircraft.
March 11, 2018: All five passengers die when a Liberty Helicopter Tours chopper crashes into the East River. The pilot manages to escape the aircraft.
Oct. 4, 2011: One tourist is killed on impact and two others eventually die from their injuries when a helicopter plunges into the East River shortly after taking off from the 34th Street helipad.
Aug. 8, 2009: Six passengers in a Liberty sightseeing helicopter are killed when the aircraft collides with a small airplane over the Hudson River. Three of the plane’s passengers also are killed.
July 7, 2007: A Liberty sightseeing helicopter with eight onboard drops into the Hudson but there are no fatalities.
June 17, 2005: An MBNA Corp. helicopter crashes into the East River just a minute after taking off but six executives of the financial services company are uninjured.
June 14, 2005: A helicopter carrying six foreign tourists falls into the East River shortly after takeoff from a downtown heliport. One person is seriously injured.
April 15, 1997: A Colgate-Palmolive executive is killed and two are injured after a helicopter lifts off from the 60th Street heliport and crashes into the East River.
Aug. 26, 1995: An Army National Guard helicopter crashes into the Hudson River during a training exercise in the Bronx, but all three aboard swim to safety.
Oct. 22, 1986: A WNBC radio traffic reporter dies after her helicopter crashes in the Hudson River while she broadcasts. The pilot sustains serious injuries.
July 22, 1983: An NYPD helicopter crashes through the roof of a vacant building in Brooklyn after colliding with a seaplane, which landed in New York Harbor. Two police officers are killed and the two passengers on the plane are presumed drowned.
Nov. 20, 1981: A helicopter crashes into the Hudson River during a windy rainstorm but both men onboard are rescued by a boat.
May 16, 1977: Five people are killed when a rotor blade breaks off a helicopter after the aircraft crashes on the roof of the Pan Am Building [now the MetLife Building].
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the number of people who died in the March 2018 crash.