A passenger’s bag may have accidentally hit the fuel shutoff button of the doomed helicopter that plunged into New York’s East River Sunday, killing all aboard except the pilot, who issued a frantic distress call before climbing aboard a raft and paddling to safety.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” Richard Vance, the 33-year-old pilot, called out over his radio seconds before going down in a crash that left all five of his passengers dead. “East River engine failure!”
The passengers were on a tour operated by New Jersey-based Liberty Helicopters and investigators were looking Monday at the possibility that one of their bags interfered with the helicopter.
The cause of the crash is not yet known but it is reportedly the third in the past 11 years involving the company.
The pilot of the helicopter, Richard Vance, after emerging from the frigid waters of New York City’s East River on Sunday night.
(Courtesy New York Post)
“It took a while for the divers to get these people out. They worked very quickly as fast as they could,” Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. “It was a great tragedy that we had here.”
The passengers were recovered shortly after the helicopter went into the water around 7:06 p.m. Police and fire department divers had to remove them from tight harnesses while they were upside down, Nigro added.
Three of the passengers were listed in critical condition after being rushed to nearby hospitals, where they later died. Two were declared dead at the scene and police said the pilot freed himself and was rescued by a passing tugboat.
Officials said the water Sunday night was frigid, with temperatures around 40 degrees.
Video posted on Twitter of the crash showed a red helicopter land hard in the river and then flip on its side as its rotors beat the water.
Police sources told the New York Post the helicopter was being flown by Vance, a native of Danbury, Conn.
“He’s a very good pilot,” his father, Anthony Vance, told the newspaper, adding Richard has flown “a lot of years” with a commercial pilot’s license.
A LinkedIn page purportedly belonging to Vance said he has been employed by Liberty Helicopters since April 2016.
The group of five passengers, who officials said were flying as part of one of the company’s tours, were on the private Eurocopter AS350 for a photo shoot when it crashed.
“We are focused on supporting the families affected by this tragic accident and fully cooperating with the FAA and NTSB investigations,” Liberty Helicopters told Fox News in a statement.
The company says on its website it has been in business since 1990 and offers “unparalleled safety records and a commitment to customer service.”
But Sunday’s crash is the third one involving Liberty Helicopters in the past 11 years, according to reports.
In 2009, a sightseeing helicopter of the same model and operated by Liberty Helicopters collided with a small, private plane over the Hudson River, killing nine people, including a group of Italian tourists, the Associated Press reported.
Two years earlier, one of the company’s helicopters, carrying eight people, dropped into the Hudson River but everyone was able to escape, according to WABC.
March 11, 2018: Yellow buoys that a New York police officer said are suspending a helicopter that crashed into the East River float next to a NYPD police boat at a pier in New York.
One witness told the New York Post she watched Sunday’s crash unfold from her apartment window and “immediately thought someone was in there and not going to live.”
“By the time we got out here, we couldn’t see [the helicopter],” Mary Lee said. “It was under water.”
Another witness, Arineh Nazarian, described seeing the helicopter crash while she and others were eating dinner.
“We noticed a red helicopter going full speed towards the water,” Nazarian told WABC. “It almost looked very surreal and next thing we know it’s approaching the water slowly and then it just completely crashed and then sunk.”
The skies over New York constantly buzz with helicopters carrying tourists, businesspeople, traffic reporters, medical teams and others. Crashes are not unheard of.
A crash in October 2011 in the East River killed a British woman visiting the city for her 40th birthday. Three other passengers were injured.
In June 2005, two helicopters crashed into the East River in the same week. One incident injured eight people, including some banking executives. The other crash hit the water shortly after takeoff on a sightseeing flight, injuring six tourists and the pilot.
Fox News’ Edmund DeMarche, Nicole Darrah and The Associated Press contributed to this report.