A private charter helicopter hired for a photo shoot crashed into New York City’s East River on Sunday night and flipped upside down in the water, killing all five passengers on board, officials said.
The pilot and lone survivor was identified by a New York Police Department official as Richard Vance, 33 years old. The passengers included four men and one woman, another official said.
The pilot freed himself and was rescued by a tugboat, officials said, while police and fire department divers who recovered the passengers had to remove them from tight harnesses while they were upside down.
Video taken by a bystander and posted on Twitter shows the red helicopter landing hard in the water and then capsizing, its rotors slapping at the water.
“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 on an otherwise quiet Sunday evening,” said New York City Fire Department Commissioner Daniel Nigro. He said divers faced difficult conditions with cold water, currents and tight harnesses on the passengers. “It took a while for the divers to get these people out.”
NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said the National Transportation Safety Board would investigate the accident.
Mr. O’Neill said the helicopter is owned by Liberty Helicopter Tours. An email to the company’s chief executives wasn’t immediately returned and no one was reachable by phone at the company’s headquarters.
Trevor Cadigan was smiling and laughing as the helicopter ascended. His friend, Brian McDaniel, was sitting behind him, flashing a thumbs-up.
Cadigan had just moved to New York, and McDaniel, his friend from back home in Dallas, was visiting. They had spent the weekend sightseeing, and on Sunday evening boarded a helicopter to capture views of the city from above.
The 35-second Instagram video Cadigan posted at around 7 p.m. captured some of the last moments of their lives. The red helicopter they were riding in had just flown over the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge when it plunged into the frigid waters of the East River near Roosevelt Island, between Manhattan and Queens.
The flight lasted just 11 minutes, according to flightradar24.com, a flight-tracking website. Videos captured by witnesses showed the helicopter descending quickly, capsizing and tilting onto its side, its rotor blades still spinning in the water.
The pilot managed to free himself and call out for help from a flotation device, witnesses told reporters at the scene. A fire boat took the pilot to shore, where an ambulance took him to a hospital, New York City Fire Department Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said at a Sunday-night news conference, adding that the pilot is “okay.”
Rescue teams worked in below-40-degree temperatures and 50-foot-deep water with 4-mph currents to remove the passengers from the helicopter, Nigro said. The passengers were all “tightly harnessed,” so emergency fire and police responders had to cut the harnesses.
“It took a while for the divers to get these people out,” he said. “They worked very quickly, as fast as they could.”
“It’s a great tragedy that we had occurred here on an otherwise quiet Sunday evening,” Nigro added.
Two of the passengers were pronounced dead in the initial hours after the crash; three others died later at a hospital.
The others killed were 34-year-old Daniel Thompson and 29-year-old Tristan Hill, both from New York, and a 29-year-old Argentine, Carla Vallejos Blanco.
Officials have not said what caused the crash. The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating. Officials with the NTSB told reporters on Monday afternoon that investigators have not talked to the pilot, who remains hospitalized. It also remains unclear whether the harnesses were functioning properly, or if the helicopter experienced mechanical problems after takeoff.
The helicopter, a Eurocopter AS350, was a private charter commissioned for a photo shoot, said James P. O’Neill, commissioner of the New York City Police Department.
It is owned by Liberty Helicopters, a New Jersey-based company that claims to be the “largest and most experienced helicopter sightseeing and charter service in the Northeast,” according to its website. Providing sightseeing trips since 1990, the company advertises “unparalleled safety records.”
A representative for Liberty Helicopters was not available for comment, but the company told Fox News in a statement that it is cooperating with federal investigators. FlyNYON, a New Jersey company that runs the tours, was also unreachable Monday.
Witness Celia Skvaril told local media that the helicopter hit the water and flipped over. She then saw a man float down the river on a raft, but did not see anyone else emerge from the water.
Charles Woronick, 87 of Connecticut, identified himself to a reporter as the great uncle of Mr. Vance, the pilot. Mr. Woronick said Mr. Vance had been flying a helicopter commercially for more than a year. He didn’t recall Mr. Vance ever getting into an accident.
He said Mr. Vance was from Wallingford, Conn., but now lived in Danbury. Mr. Woronick woke up on Monday to find the pilot was his great nephew and described the incident as “very scary.”
“It was a pretty hard hit and then it flipped over,” Skvaril, 23, told the New York Daily News. “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.”
Video footage on Twitter shows a man wrapped in a white blanket walking alongside emergency responders on East End Avenue, near the Upper East Side, after the crash. Other videos show emergency responders performing CPR on a victim on a stretcher being loaded onto an ambulance.
The helicopter was one of three that took off from a helipad in New Jersey early Sunday evening for a flying tour of New York City, said Eric Adams, an aviation writer who was a passenger in a different helicopter. The flights cater to tourists and to amateur and professional photographers, like Adams, who want to take aerial pictures of the city.
The Federal Aviation Administration said on Twitter that the Eurocopter AS350 helicopter went down around 7 p.m. and was reportedly inverted in the water. Emergency crews responded to the scene near East 90th Street.
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