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Pilot Says Passenger May Have Caused NYC Chopper Crash; 5 Victims Identified [NEW VIDEOS]

The five passengers killed when a helicopter plunged into New York City’s East River were identified on Monday, as the pilot said the engine had failed.

The pilot of the helicopter, who managed to escape the overturned chopper, was the only survivor. Law enforcement sources identified him as Richard Vance. Vance, 33, told investigators he believed a passenger’s bag hit the fuel cut-off switch with a piece of equipment, which may have caused the engine to sputter and the chopper to plunge into the river.

The Eurocopter AS350 helicopter went down about 7 p.m. in the water near New York’s mayoral residence.

As the aircraft foundered, the pilot was heard on an emergency radio transmission calling: “Mayday, mayday, mayday.” “East River — engine failure,” he added.”

The pilot was rescued by a tugboat, but emergency divers had to remove the passengers on the charter helicopter being used for a photo shoot from tight safety harnesses while they were upside down, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.

“It took a while for the divers to get these people out. They worked very quickly, as fast as they could,” Nigro said. “It was a great tragedy that we had here.”

Argentina’s New York consulate on Monday identified one victim as Carla Vallejos Blanco, an Argentinian tourist who just celebrated her 29th birthday 10 days ago.

The Dallas Fire-Rescue Department confirmed that Fire-Rescue Officer Brian McDaniel died in the crash. McDaniel, 26, had been with the department since May 2016.

“Despite his short tenure, hearts are heavy with grief as we not only try to come to grips with his loss departmentally but to also be there in every way that we can for his family,” the department said in a statement.

McDaniel was visiting his longtime friend Trevor Cadigan, who had been living in New York since October 2017 after taking a job with a business magazine, Cadigan’s father said. The two friends were both 26; they went to Texas’ Bishop Lynch High School together and graduated in 2010.

An Instagram video posted by Cadigan appeared to show him smiling as the helicopter took off from Kearny, New Jersey. McDaniel flashed a thumbs up.

Two helicopter employees — 29-year-old Tristan Hill and 34-year-old Daniel Thompson — also died.

The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched investigators on Monday. The cause of the crash has not been officially determined.

A floating crane slowly raised the submerged helicopter to the surface Monday and towed it off to be examined as Democratic New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said federal regulators should suspend flights by the helicopter’s owner until the facts of the crash are known.

Video taken by a bystander and posted on Twitter shows the red helicopter land hard in the water and then capsize, its rotors slapping at the water.

Witnesses on a nearby waterfront esplanade said the helicopter was flying noisily, then suddenly dropped and quickly submerged. But the pilot appeared on the surface, holding onto a flotation device as a tugboat and then police boats approached.

“It was sinking really fast,” Mary Lee, 66, told the New York Post. “By the time we got out here, we couldn’t see it. It was under water.”

The aircraft was owned by Liberty Helicopters, a company that offers both private charters and sightseeing tours popular with tourists.

In a statement released today, Liberty Helicopters said, “We are focused on supporting the families affected by this tragic accident and on fully cooperating with the FAA and the NTSB investigations. These agencies have asked us to respect the investigative process by referring all press inquiries to them for any further comment.”

A tour and charter helicopter company, Liberty has been involved in at least five accidents or other incidents in the last 10 years, according to FAA data. “Incidents” can include events that end in safe landings, but an August 2009 collision over the Hudson River between a Liberty chopper and a small, private plane killed nine people, including a group of Italian tourists.

The company paid $23,576 in fines in 2010 and 2011 for violating maintenance, record-keeping and flight operations rules, according to the FAA. Three subsequent maintenance violations in 2011 and 2012 didn’t result in any fines.

The skies over New York constantly buzz with helicopters carrying tourists, businesspeople, traffic reporters, medical teams and others.

In 2009, a sightseeing helicopter of the same model and operated by the same company as the one in Sunday’s wreck collided with a small, private plane over the Hudson River, killing nine people, including a group of Italian tourists.

A crash in October 2011 in the East River killed a British woman visiting the city for her 40th birthday. Two other passengers died weeks later as a result of their injuries.

A helicopter on a sightseeing tour of Manhattan crashed into the Hudson River in July 2007, shaking up the eight people aboard but injuring no one. In June 2005, two helicopters crashed into the East River in the same week. One injured eight people including some banking executives. The other hit the water shortly after takeoff on a sightseeing flight, injuring six tourists and the pilot.

Nigro and Police Commissioner James O’Neill said the rescue operation Sunday took place in a 4 mph current in water about 50 feet (15 meters) deep, under challenging conditions.

(YWN / AP)

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