East River Helicopter Crash

Marla Diamond/WCBS 880

All 5 Passengers Killed After Helicopter Goes Down In East River

March 12, 2018 - 11:11 am
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NEW YORK (WCBS 880) -- All five passengers were killed when a helicopter flying for a photo shoot went down in the East River Sunday evening. Only the pilot survived.

A 14-member team from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived on the scene Monday morning, and will determine the cause of the crash.

NTSB Member Bella Dinh-Zarr said the agency is working with the NYPD to recover cameras and other equipment from the helicopter. The NTSB team will examine air traffic control, operations, airworthiness, survival factors, power plans, and weather.

The NTSB team will be on the scene for about five to seven days, with a mission to find out what happened and why. Dinh-Zarr said Monday afternoon that it was too soon to determine the probable cause of the crash, and she said she would not speculate on it.

CBS News Transportation Safety analyst and former NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker explained to Steve Scott and Michael Wallace what the investigators will be looking for.

“They will be doing a meticulous, methodical examination on this aircraft. They’ll also be doing an interview with the pilot. They’ll be looking at his training records. They’ll be looking at a 72-hour history with him. They’ll be looking at his medical records. They’ll also be looking at the maintenance records of the aircraft itself, and certainly, they’ll be trying to take a look at all of the video, which in fact had been taken by some of the bystanders,” Rosenker said.

The agency is asking the public for any photos or videos of the crash.

There were reports Monday afternoon that the pilot told an investigator a passenger’s bag might have accidentally hit the helicopter’s emergency fuel shutdown switch. Rosenker said that very well could have happened.

“That is a feasibility, and some of the earlier models that don’t have the two-step protection that are now on board the aircraft,” Rosenker said. “In this particular case, if in fact there was no guard around it, then potentially something could have turned the emergency fuel shutoff off.”

NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said shortly after 7 p.m. Sunday, police received dozens of calls for a helicopter crash on the East River near 86th Street. NYPD Harbor and Aviation units, the FDNY, and the Coast Guard all responded, and a private tugboat also assisted, O’Neill said.

The five victims were snapping sunset photos of the Manhattan skyline when something went terribly wrong.

The Federal Aviation Administration reported that the helicopter, owned by Kearny, New Jersey-based Liberty Helicopter Tours, was a Euro AS350. It was manufactured in 2013 and was registered to Meridian Consulting Corp., Dinh-Zarr said.

Radio transmissions indicated that the helicopter reported engine failure at 7:06 p.m.

A witness, JJ Magers, tweeted a video that he said showed the helicopter crashing into the river. The red helicopter is seen dropping toward the water as if it were landing before tilting and appearing to flip on its side.

FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said the pilot was able to free himself from the helicopter, but the other five people on board could not.

Police and fire divers entered the water and had to cut the victims out of the harnesses strapping them into their seats. Two were pronounced dead at the scene, while the other three were taken to an area hospital where they later died.

NTSB senior aviation investigator Todd Gunther will be leading the probe. He said he and his team will be examining the harnesses and whether they were functional.

As WCBS 880's Kevin Rincon reported, Gunther also said there were three flotation devices on the skids of helicopter, all of which had deployed when the helicopter came to rest and was towed. The flotation devices are supposed to keep the helicopter upright in the water, but that did not happen.

Gunther said the NTSB will look into the sequence of events and whether they deployed properly.

Dinh-Zarr also addressed a question about revelations that the helicopter doors being open on the photo flight.

“What we do know is this type of helicopter, it was legal to have the doors open. We don’t know exactly what the situation was, but that’s what we’re going to look at now that the helicopter has been pulled from the river,” she said.

Police have identified the victims as 34-year-old Daniel Thompson, 29-year-old Tristian Hill, 26-year-old Trevor Cardigan, 26-year-old Brian McDaniel and 29-year-old Carla Vallegjos Blanco, of Argentina.

McDaniel was a fire-rescue officer with the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department since May 2016. Cadigan, who was originally from Dallas, was a video journalist who had finished an internship a few weeks ago with the business new site, Business Insider.

The pilot, 33-year-old Richard Vance, was taken by a fire boat to shore and was taken to a hospital to be checked out, Nigro said.

“It took a while for the divers to get these people out,” Nigro said. “They worked very quickly, as fast as they could.”

"It's a great tragedy that we had occur here on an otherwise quiet Sunday evening," he added.

WCBS 880’s Alex Silverman reported the pilot was seen being walked down the stairs near Gracie Mansion on East End Avenue following the crash. He had a white towel around him. The man was clearly cold, wet, and shaken up but he was walking to the ambulance on his own with firefighters on either side of him  He was taken to a Mount Sinai ambulance.

A witness said they saw someone shortly after the crash floating on the river on two inflatable yellow devices. 

“He was waving his hands for like five minutes, or probably more,” said the witness, Adil Elbakri.

The wreckage of the helicopter was taken downriver by the strong current.

The red helicopter was mostly intact when the Army Corps of Engineers lifted it up from the water 18 hours after the crash onto a barge where it was carted off to an undisclosed location so the NTSB could begin its investigation.

The agency will be looking for the black box, and any video that was taken of the interior of the helicopter. It will also be looking for signs that there was some sort of engine failure. 

The NTSB also intends to interview the pilot, Dinh-Zarr said.

“We will be asking him to be interviewed, and we hope he’ll comply, because our only purpose here is to ensure that an accident like this doesn’t happen again,” she said.

In a statement posted on its website Monday, Liberty Helipcopters said, "We are focused on supporting the families affected by this tragic accident and on fully cooperating with the FAA and NTSB investigations."

The crash is the third involving a Liberty Helicopter in the past 11 years. In August 2009, nine people werte killed when a Liberty helicopter collided with a private plane over the Hudson River.

Rosenker said he had investigated two crashes with the company in his time running the NTSB.

“Unfortunately, I had the responsibility of having to do two investigations with them – one in 2007 and then one in 2009 just before I left the board,” he said.

He said he wanted to see rules enforced when it comes to tourist helicopters.

“I certainly want to make sure that those that are flying these aircraft are flying them appropriately, under the rules and regulations that the FAA is set forth. Certainly, I’d like to make sure that these aircraft are being flown by pilots that are trained; maintained well,” Rosenker said. “If they do that, then they can fly as many as the airspace will fit, according to the FAA.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) said he is “deeply concerned” about tourist helicopters. He sits on the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which has jurisdiction over all aviation operations, and he said the government must investigate possible underlying problems with the industry.

“I’m deeply concerned, and there’s great reason for concern, because these helicopter crashes may reflect improper maintenance, or risk-taking, or other kinds of conduct that should be investigated, and there is an investigation ongoing by relevant federal agencies,” he said. “There may be a need for Congress to investigate as well.”