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Woman Killed in East River Helicopter Crash

By DNAinfo Staff on October 4, 2011 3:46pm  | Updated on October 4, 2011 6:25pm

Rescue crews race to get passengers out of a submerged helicopter in the East River, Oct. 4, 2011.
Rescue crews race to get passengers out of a submerged helicopter in the East River, Oct. 4, 2011.
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By Serena Solomon, Carla Zanoni and Nicole Bode

DNAinfo Staff

MANHATTAN — A woman was killed after a helicopter crashed into the East River just after takeoff from the 34th Street heliport Thursday afternoon, officials said.

The helicopter, which had a pilot and four passengers inside, went down at 3:22 p.m., police said. The pilot and three passengers were able to escape, but a fourth passenger, a woman who was travelling with her parents, was trapped inside the helicopter as it sank, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said at the scene.

"It's a sad day," Bloomberg said during a press conference at the scene Tuesday evening. "All New Yorkers feel for this family. We wish it had not happened. Our prayers are with the deceased."

The FDNY said the woman's body was recovered just before 5 p.m. She was pulled from the wreckage about an hour after the crash in approximately 40 to 50 feet of water, according to NYPD Commissioner Paul Browne.

"The waters are very tricky," Browne said. "And visibility in the water is obscured at best."

Two other female passengers were taken to Bellevue Medical Center in critical condition. One male passenger was taken to NYU Langone Medical Center in stable condition, while the pilot was treated at the scene, fire officials said.

The identities of the pilot and passengers was not immediately available. But Bloomberg said the passengers were believed to be British tourists, two of whom lived in Australia and two of whom hailed from Portugal. The deceased passenger is the daughter of the British couple, according to the NYPD's top spokesman Paul Browne. 

At least one of the passengers was friends with the pilot, who flew out from the Linden, N.J., airport to pick them up on the east side, Bloomberg said.

He said the identities of the deceased passenger was being withheld pending notification of the family.

The helicopter was privately owned and was not part of an official tour company, Bloomberg said. It was not immediately clear what caused the problems with the helicopter.

"Apparently the pilot said he was having problems ... he was going to turn around and come back," Bloomberg said. "From what we know the pilot reported having trouble keeping aloft. We have no idea whether it was mechanical, [or] whether it was an accident caused by human error."

It went down less than 50 feet from the heliport, police said. Bloomberg praised rescue workers who were on the scene within minutes.

"There's about as many fire and police trucks and engines and cars in as can fit into the neighborhood. The response was quite amazing, whether it was airborne response or waterborne response," Bloomberg said. "A quicker response couldn't have happened and wouldn't have made a difference, apparently, in terms of saving the people."

Bloomberg said the private plane was not required to have flotation devices, as some tourist helicopters have. Even if it did have flotation devices, it wouldn't have helped since the plane landed upside down in the water, he said.

Joy Garnett of Brooklyn was standing on the East River Ferry Pier taking photos just before the crash when she saw the crash. She said the helicopter lifted 20-feet in the air before the body of the craft started spinning around.

"I thought, 'Wow, what is that some daredevil move?" she said.

The helicopter then swung over the water and one of the rotor blades broke off into the water, she said. She heard it hit the water and saw a huge splash, she said.

She then saw the helicopter upside down in the water, and two people clinging to its skids.

Rob Dress, 36, brought his 9-month-old son, James, to the helipad to watch the helicopters take off when he saw the crash.

"It just kept spinning and spinning and spinning and then it just keeled over," he said. "It just turned over and headed right down."

He then ran toward the crash site yelling, "Call 911!" he said.

At first he didn't see anyone in the water, but then he saw two people who appeared to be wearing suits pop up above the surface.

Firefighter Robert Lopez said he was among the crews rescuing the passengers. He said he pulled one of the men back to shore, who he believed to be the pilot.

"The current was really strong. I was swimming against the current. i just made sure I got to him. By the time I got to him the helicopter was being taken back to shore and was going under," Lopez said.

The National Transportation Safety Board said Tuesday evening that it had dispatched a team to Manhattan investigate the crash.

The New York Waterway said it had suspended the East River Ferry service between E. 34th Street and Brooklyn and Queens as a result of the crash. For a full list of service interruptions and diversions, check the NY Waterway website.

There have been four helicopter accidents in New York City in the past five years according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

In August 2009, a sightseeing helicopter run by Liberty Helicopter tours collided with a small plane over the Hudson River, killing nine people, including five Italian tourists, Reuters reported at the time.

The helicopter had taken off from the West 30th Street heliport - which has since been banned to tourist flights.

In March 2009, an AA corporate helicopter headed to Wilmington, Del. with eight on board crashed into the East River, just blocks away from where the incident today, CBS News reported at the time.  One of two pilots was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.

The incident came less than a week after a tourist helicopter crashed in the East River, shortly after taking off for a sightseeing flight, sending six passengers and the pilot to the hospital, CBS News reported at the time.

In July 2007, another sightseeing helicopter, also operated by Liberty Helicopters, crashed into the Hudson River. Eight people were on board the helicopter, including the pilot, were rescued by two recreational motor boats, the New York Times reported at the time.

On New Year's Eve in 1997, another Liberty helicopter crashed into the side of a one-story building near the West 30th Street heliport. The eight people on board received only minor injuries, the Times said.

Mary Johnson and Ben Fractenberg contributed reporting.