NEW YORK — A helicopter with five people aboard crashed into the East River on Tuesday afternoon after taking off from a launch pad on the riverbank, killing one and seriously injuring at least two others.
The pilot and three others were pulled alive from the water by rescue crews shortly after the chopper went down. The body of a woman also on the Bell 206 helicopter, which was submerged in the murky water, was recovered later, police spokesman Paul Browne said.
The private chopper went into the river off 34th Street in midtown Manhattan. It’s unclear what happened, but witnesses reported it was sputtering and appeared to be in some type of mechanical distress.
A massive rescue effort had been under way with a dozen boats and divers down into the cold, grey water before the woman’s body was recovered.
The conditions of those who were rescued weren’t immediately available. The fire department said at least two people on board were taken to area hospitals in serious condition.
Joy Garnett and her husband were on the dock waiting to take the East River ferry to Brooklyn when they heard the blades of a helicopter and saw it start to take off from the nearby helipad. She said she saw it do “a funny curlicue.”
“I thought, ‘Is that some daredevil move?”’ she said. “But it was obviously out of control. The body spun around at least two or three times, and then it went down.”
She said the chopper had lifted about 25 feet off the ground before it dropped into the water without much of a splash. It flipped over, and the blades were sticking up out of the river. She said people on the dock started throwing in life jackets and buoys. Two people came up out of the waves.
“It didn’t make much noise,” she said. “It was just a splash and sunk.”
The weather was clear but a little windy Tuesday, with winds of 10 mph gusting to 20 mph and visibility of 10 miles, according to the weather station at LaGuardia airport. There were a few clouds at 3,500 feet above sea level, well above the typical flying altitude for helicopters.
Carlos Acevedo, of Puerto Rico, was with his wife at a nearby park area when they saw the helicopter go down.
“It sank fast,” he said. “In seconds. Like the water was sucking it in.”
Lau Kamg was leaving a dentist’s office and was walking nearby when he saw the chopper go down, and he said it appeared to be in distress.
“The sound got my attention,” he said. I saw it splash.”
The chopper, a Bell 206 Jet Ranger, is one of the world’s most popular helicopter models and was first flown in January 1966. They are light and highly maneuverable, making them popular with television stations and air taxi companies. A new one costs between $700,000 and $1.2 million.
On Aug. 8, 2009 a small plane collided with a helicopter over the Hudson River, on the other side of Manhattan, killing nine people, including five Italian tourists. A government safety panel found that an air traffic controller who was on a personal phone call had contributed to the accident.
The Federal Aviation Administration changed its rules for aircraft flying over New York City’s rivers after that collision. Pilots must call out their positions on the radio and obey a 161 mph speed limit. Before the changes, such radio calls were optional.
Earlier that year, an Airbus 320 airliner landed in the Hudson after hitting birds and losing both engines shortly after taking off from LaGuardia Airport. The flight, U.S. Airways Flight 1549, became known as the Miracle on the Hudson plane.
The river has been closed to commercial boating traffic, the U.S. Coast Guard said.