The pilot of the doomed sightseeing helicopter that crashed into the East River told investigators that a lever to shut off the engine may have been accidentally pulled in midair, police sources said.
The nightmare scenario inside the crowded cabin of the Eurocopter AS350 emerged Monday as 14 National Transportation Security Board officials arrived in New York to determine the cause of the crash that killed five people.
Only the pilot, Richard Vance, survived.
The Liberty Helicopters chopper — which was chartered for FlyNYOn a “doors-off” photography tour — was cluttered with equipment.
About 11 minutes into the flight, some of the gear may have come loose and hooked the fuel shutoff lever, cutting the engine, the pilot said.
As the helicopter fell Vance radioed, “Mayday. We got engine failure.”
The fatal move yanking the lever on the floor of the cabin sounded unusual but possible, an air safety consultant, Keith Mackey, said.
The lever is used to stop a fire.
“It would appear possible that if a strap from a suitcase were wrapped around it and the suitcase were pulled, it would cut the fuel off,” Mackey said.
Investigators were also examining whether six inflatable pontoons on the helicopter had properly deployed.
Video of the crash just after 7 p.m. Sunday showed the chopper slowly falling into the frigid river just off of E. 87th St.
Its rotors whipped the water before the aircraft flipped over, leaving its skids in the air. The passengers were submerged and strapped into their seats.
A police source said the helicopter may have turned over because one of the pontoons did not fully inflate.
“There are a whole lot of questions about this crash,” Sen. Chuck Schumer said.
NTSB investigators cautioned that their probe was just getting underway.
The passengers were tightly harnessed in their seats, making it difficult to remove them from the water.
The helicopter hit the East River near Gracie Mansion — but first responders weren’t able to pull the bodies of the five victims from the aircraft until it had drifted to around 34th St. police said. The current carried the copter downstream at about 3.5 mph.
A private tugboat helped with the rescue effort.
“They saw people in distress and they acted on it. I applaud them for their courage and their bravery,” Police Commissioner James O’Neill said.
“As far as I can see, everything was done appropriately and as quickly as possible. The scuba divers that went into the water, they do that at great risk and I applaud what they do.”
The victims were identified by police as Brian McDaniel, a firefighter from Dallas; Trevor Cadigan, a video journalist who’d recently moved to the city; Carla Vallejos Blanco, a tourist from Argentina, and two men who worked for a sightseeing ticket-selling company, Tristan Hill and Daniel Thompson.
Schumer called for the Federal Aviation Administration to suspend Liberty Helicopters’ operating license. The company has been involved in at least two other crashes in the past 11 years.
The helicopter tours have been a concern for years, with most complaints revolving around noise caused by the low-flying aircraft.
In February 2016, Mayor de Blasio announced a deal to reduce chopper tours from the downtown Manhattan heliport by 50%. It eliminated them altogether on Sundays.
But the agreement was riddled with loopholes that have not significantly reduced copter flights around the city, according to John Dellaportas, president of Stop the Chop NY NJ, which has pressed for measures against the sightseeing tours for years.
“Basically, the mayor lied,” Dellaportas said.
“He sold the deal by saying there would be a ban on Sundays. Anybody who lives in New York sees there are helicopters on Sundays.”
The accord only applies to the heliport near Wall St. operated by the city’s Economic Development Corp.
Helicopter operators are able to dodge the regulations by marketing their flights as professional “doors-off” photography tours and by taking off from New Jersey, Dellaportas said.
FlyNYOn touts the safety of its flights.
“We extend our deepest sympathies to the family members and loved ones of those involved in this tragic event,” the company tweeted. They said they were cooperating with investigators.
Deadly Helicopter crash in New York City’s East River
Vance took off from Kearny, N.J. The moment was captured in a chilling video posted by Cardigan just minutes before the catastrophe.
“Anybody with an iPhone can be a photographer for the purpose of these tours,” Dellaportas said.
“This is unbelievable. These guys are complete outlaws!”
A well-connected lobbyist, James Capalino, earned at least $120,000 representing helicopter operators around the time the deal with the city was negotiated.
Capalino was eyed by investigators in the probe of de Blasio’s campaign fund-raising practices, which resulted in no federal or state charges.
The city’s Economic Development Corp. said it could only regulate the helipads in the city.
“We negotiated a deal that successfully cut in half the number of tourism helicopter flights leaving from New York City heliports. New York City has no authority over flights that depart outside the five boroughs,” EDC spokesman Anthony Senior said.
“We, at Liberty Helicopters, are deeply saddened by last night’s tragic events,” the charter company said 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.”
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With Laura Dimon