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Deadly Crash Renews Call to Ban Manhattan Helicopter Flights

By Jill Colvin | October 5, 2011 6:43am | Updated on October 5, 2011 9:46am
Emergency workers carry out rescue efforts at East 34th Street heliport, on Tuesday Oct. 4, 2011
Emergency workers carry out rescue efforts at East 34th Street heliport, on Tuesday Oct. 4, 2011
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MANHATTAN — A deadly crash in the East River is renewing calls from local leaders to ban helicopter flights in Manhattan.

The Bloomberg administration has rejected attempts by local politicians and community leaders to put tighter limits on the flights following a string of deadly crashes.

But after a crippled helicopter sank into the river Tuesday, killing one woman and leaving four people hurt, critics are again speaking out.

The woman was identified in reports as Sonia Marra, who was celebrating her 40th birthday in the city with her partner, mother and stepfather.

The Sydney Morning Herald said she was British, but lived in Australia where she had owned a restaurant in Sydney.

"Yet another terrible tragedy involving a helicopter should send us a clear message in flashing neon lights," said Congressman Jerrold Nadler in a statement.

"Sightseeing and non-essential helicopters are dangerous, unnecessary, and not worth it. Let us ban them from our air corridors once and for all," he said.

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who represents the East Side, said there have been at least 28 crashes in the city over the past 30 years. She, too, questioned the safety of having so many helicopters flying overhead and called on federal transportation officials to re-examine its policies.

“This latest crash is further evidence that the FAA needs to seriously consider whether or not it makes sense to continue to permit non-essential helicopter traffic originating in Manhattan,” she said, warning that the crash could have been deadlier had it occurred over land.

National Transportation Safety Board records show at least four serious accidents in the city in over the past five years.

But Mayor Michael Bloomberg, himself an avid helicopter pilot, has previously rejected calls to limit flights out of Manhattan, arguing that the city would take an economic hit if it tried to bar tourist and private helicopter flights.

Asked during a press conference at the scene of the crash Tuesday whether he would reconsider, the mayor slammed those raising alarms.

“Today is not a day for political grandstanding as some people have tried to do, today is a day for thinking and praying for the deceased,” he said.

The city’s Economic Development Corporation has also defended tourist flights in the past, arguing that barring departures from the city won't stop helicopters from hovering over Manhattan because operators can simply launch from New Jersey and Long Island instead.

A spokeswoman for the EDC declined to comment Tuesday, citing the tragic event.

City Councilman Dan Garodnick, who rushed to the scene after the crash, said that the helicopters have long been an issue for residents in the neighborhood, where the key complaint is often noise.

“People are constantly concerned about the presence of helicopters. But they are usually just a fact of life,” he said, adding that the top prioriy is for investigators to figure out what went wrong on Tuesday.

“We need to look comprehensively at the cause of the accidents and whether there are new safety concerns that are present for riders of helicopters and local residents," he said.

Advocates, like Helicopter Noise Coalition of New York City’s Joy Held, said that calls for action are nothing new. She said she’s watched politicians rally after crashes again and again, only to abandon the cause once fears have eased.

“Until there’s really something horrendous, people turn a blind eye to the fact that this traffic is not necessary and it is very dangerous,” she said, arguing that the city’s small heliports, surrounded by hazards, make them unsuitable to high-volume operations.

“It’s an accident waiting to happen. And it keeps happening,” she said.

There have been several major helicopter accidents in recent years.

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.

The helicopter had taken off from the West 30th Street heliport — which has since been banned from operating 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 Tuesday’s crash. One of two pilots was rushed to the hospital in critical condition.

That 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.

In July 2007, another sightseeing helicopter, also operated by Liberty Helicopters, went down in the Hudson River.  Eight people on board the helicopter, including the pilot, were rescued.

There have also been several crashes over land.

In May 2004, WNBC-TV’s news Chopper 4 went down in Brooklyn, hitting the roof of a four-story brick apartment building and then plunging through the roof of another two-story building.

The helicopter snapped in half, but all three on board walked away without serious injuries.

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

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