A calm pilot issued urgent "mayday" calls in the moments before his helicopter slammed into New York City's East River late Sunday, killing five people in a crash that may have been caused by a passenger's bag inadvertently hitting the emergency fuel shutoff button.
"Mayday, mayday, mayday," said the pilot, followed by "East River, engine failure." The audio was captured by LiveATC.net. Part of the transmission was obscured by static, and LaGuardia Air Traffic Control asked him to repeat it.
"It was a mayday call, LaGuardia," the third party says. The helicopter, operated by Liberty Helicopter Tours, crashed and flipped upside down in the water. The pilot, Richard Vance, was the only survivor.
CNN and ABC News, citing senior law enforcement officials they did not name, reported that Vance told investigators a passenger's bag may have inadvertently hit the emergency fuel shutoff button, leading to the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board sent a 14-person team to investigate.
Authorities identified the five victims as Daniel Thompson, 34, Tristian Hill, 29, Trevor Cadigan, 26, Brian McDaniel, 26, and Carla Vallejos Blanco, 29.
It was the third crash of a Liberty Helicopter in the area since 2007, according to NTSB records. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., called on the Federal Aviation Administration to temporarily suspend Liberty's operating license pending investigation.
The FAA said the Eurocopter AS350 went down just after 7 p.m. near Gracie Mansion, the mayoral residence.
Vance, 33, freed himself and was rescued by a tugboat, officials said. The bodies of the five passengers were recovered from the submerged helicopter, a private charter hired for a photo shoot, by police and fire department divers.
“It took awhile 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 that we had here.”
Video journalist Trevor Cadigan, Dallas firefighter Brian McDaniel and Argentine tourist Carla Vallejos Blanco were among the victims, families and employers confirmed.
Bystander video posted on Twitter shows the helicopter landing level, then capsizing as its rotors slap the water. Witnesses on a waterfront esplanade said the helicopter was flying noisily, then suddenly dropped into the water and quickly submerged. The pilot quickly surfaced, however, clinging to a flotation device as a tugboat and then police boats approached.
Liberty offers both private charters and sightseeing tours popular with tourists. The company issued a statement saying it was "focused on supporting the families affected by this tragic accident and on fully cooperating with the FAA and NTSB investigation."
In August 8, 2009, a Eurocopter AS350BA helicopter operated by Liberty collided with a small plane over the Hudson River near Hoboken, N.J. The pilot and two passengers aboard the airplane and the pilot and five passengers aboard the helicopter were killed, according to an NTSB report.
On July 7, 2007, a Eurocopter EC-130-B4 helicopter operated by Liberty crashed into the Hudson River, according to another NTSB report. No one was injured in the crash.
Kanzler and Agnish reported for the Bergen Record. Contributing: Jane Onyanga-Omara, USA TODAY; the Associated Press.