Chopper pilot reported problem before crash in New York


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The pilot of a helicopter that crashed into the East River off Manhattan radioed that he was having problems with the aircraft before it spun out of control and careened into the water, killing a passenger out for a birthday ride and leaving three others hospitalized.

Only the pilot of the Bell 206 aircraft escaped relatively unscathed after the helicopter flipped upside down and sank in nearly 50 feet of water Tuesday. A woman who was trapped inside was pulled from the murky, 66-degree water more than an hour later and pronounced dead. Two other women and a man were hospitalized.


At a news conference Tuesday evening, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said all the passengers knew each other. Officials said they included a British couple living in Portugal; their daughter, who was celebrating her 40th birthday and living in Australia; and the daughter’s female partner, also living in Australia. The daughter was the dead woman, officials said.

Bloomberg said the man was in serious condition and the surviving female passengers were in critical condition. The pilot was a family friend who had flown over from Linden, N.J., to take them on a helicopter tour over New York.

Police Lt. Larry Serras was among the first rescuers into the water, and he helped pull the two surviving women from the river. Both were unconscious, he told the local CBS affiliate, WCBS. ‘We just struggled to keep their faces out of the water,’ he said. The male passenger was able to grab onto a life preserver thrown to him.

Serras said the pilot, who was treated at the scene for minor injuries, indicated that another person was still in the aircraft. She was dead by the time rescue workers reached her.

On Tuesday evening, the helicopter was raised from the river, and investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board arrived in New York to determine the cause of the accident.

Witnesses said the situation would have been worse if the crash had not occurred in full view of witnesses who immediately called 911, and in an area of the river off 34th Street that is heavy with boat traffic. That ensured an immediate response to help the passengers.


Serras was on the water taking part in a police operation when he and other officers were alerted to the crash and headed over. Within minutes, witnesses said, people on shore about 20 feet from the crash site had begun throwing life preservers into the water.

The witnesses included Robert Dress, who had come to the spot near the 34th Street helipad so his young son could watch the aircraft land and take off. ‘It started swirling around like it was in trouble,’ he said of the helicopter, echoing other witnesses who said it was clear from liftoff that the pilot was having problems. Dress said the helicopter crashed into the river upside down and vanished quickly.

Bloomberg said the pilot radioed that he was having problems staying aloft just before the crash.

Joseph Belez was watching from land and told the Associated Press: ‘It was going up, and then all of a sudden it just spun itself and went down to the water... It just went down. It was a shock. It really was.’


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-- Tina Susman in New York