A chartered helicopter carrying a five people and a pilot plunged into the East River Sunday evening, killing two passengers in a devastating crash that was caught on video.
Three passengers were also hurt, and listed in critical condition. The pilot escaped alive, and emerged from the frigid waters desperately yelling for help.
Footage of the deadly incident, which was posted on social media even before the deaths were confirmed, showed the copter progressively losing altitude until it slammed into the water, bounded and tilted over before it sank.
For a few seconds the rotors sliced into the water until the helicopter went under with six people, including the pilot, still trapped inside.
“There were six people on the helicopter,” said Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro. “The pilot freed himself. The other five did not. The police, fire divers entered the water and removed the other five.”
The FDNY responded within five minutes, the commissioner said.
“The pilot is okay,” Nigro said. “He went to the hospital to be checked out, but he was able to get out.”
Officials said the helicopter went down in about 50 feet of water in the middle of the East River, near the Upper East Side by E. 89th St., not far from Carl Schurz Park and Roosevelt Island, officials said.. The current was moving at 4 mph.
“It took a while for the divers to get these people out. They worked very quickly, as fast as they could.”
Nigro said the harnesses designed to be worn for safety may have actually hindered the passengers’ escape. First responders were not only operating in frigid water, but they were working against time inside a helicopter that, by the time they arrived had turned upside down.
“The pilot freed himself, was taken by one of our fire boats ashore and was out on an ambulance,” Nigro added.
“One of the most difficult parts of the operation we’re told is the five people besides the pilot were all tightly harnessed so these harnesses had to be removed in order to get these folks off of this helicopter which was upside down at the time.”
Officials said the chopper was owned by New Jersey-based Liberty Helicopter Tours, and that it was chartered for a photo shoot.
The Kearny sightseeing operation was involved with a deadly midair collision over the Hudson River in August 2009 that claimed the lives of six people, including the pilot. Three more people were killed on the single-engine aircraft it hit.
Investigators concluded that the helicopter was flying too high and the pilot of the Piper PA-32R was distracted by a Teterboro Airport dispatcher and failed to see the chopper, according to National Transportation Safety Board records.
In 2007, a helicopter with the same company crashed into the Hudson during a tour of the city. An off-duty EMT on board the aircraft helped the passengers escape.
Officials said it was too early to determine what caused Sunday’s crash.
Amateur video shows the commercial helicopter crashing into the water, its rotor still spinning, and then overturn.
“Just witnessed a helicopter crash into the East River … hope everyone’s ok. Caught it all on tape!” wrote Twitter user @JJmagers, who posted the video online just after 7:15 p.m.
Brianna Jesme, 22, who witnessed the afternoon crash, said, “It sort of landed sideways and then it flipped over. There was a good solid minute that no one came out of the helicopter.”
She added, “We didn’t know if it was supposed to be happening. Once it went down we realized that it wasn’t supposed to happen.”
The NYPD’s Aviation and Harbor Unit rushed to the scene, as did the FDNY’s Harbor Unit, sending divers to search for the helicopter’s occupants.
A privately-operated tugboat managed to rescue at least one person, according to U.S. Coast Guard officials, while police and fire recovered five more. Their condition was not immediately known Sunday night.
“It was completely submerged,” another eyewitness Celia Skvaril, 23, said. “We didn’t see the helicopter anymore and then a yellow raft popped up and again we didn’t see or hear anyone until we saw a person on top of the raft screaming and yelling for help and waving.”
“It was a pretty hard hit and then it flipped over.”
Manhattan resident Tuan-Lung Wang saw the scene unfold from his window.
“Some unexpected scene to see when you have a east river view in your room,” Wang tweeted. “20 min ago, my wife and I were chilling in our room enjoying the river view. Then we saw a flying object gradually landing on water. We thought it’s a helicopter, but we were not sure. So we called 911.”
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With Nicole Hensley