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5 People Killed in Helicopter Crash in East River Off Manhattan

NEW YORK — The red helicopter carrying six people zoomed over the East River, flying along a popular route for sightseers who want to view the Manhattan skyline, but something appeared wrong with its path Sunday evening.

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AL BAKER, New York Times

NEW YORK — The red helicopter carrying six people zoomed over the East River, flying along a popular route for sightseers who want to view the Manhattan skyline, but something appeared wrong with its path Sunday evening.

It was flying too fast and descending too quickly, witnesses said.

From high-rise apartment buildings and parks along the river, they watched as the helicopter, losing altitude as if it were landing on solid ground, plunged into the chilly water.

Its swirling rotors chopped into the river, eventually coming to a stop as it tilted, capsized and began to sink shortly after 7 p.m.

Moments later, the pilot escaped, climbed to the top of the wreckage and yelled for help, a witness said. A flotilla of tugboats and emergency boats converged on the crash site, a couple of hundred yards north of Roosevelt Island, and began a frenzied search for others on board.

Emergency responders dived into the water to rescue the passengers, who were tightly harnessed in and had to be cut out, Daniel A. Nigro, commissioner of the New York Fire Department, said at a news conference.

Battling currents of 5 mph and a water temperature below 40 degrees, the rescuers pulled the passengers out of the submerged helicopter and brought them ashore, he said.

All five passengers were killed, James Long, a Fire Department spokesman, said early Monday morning. Two were declared dead at the scene, and three died in local hospitals.

“It was a great tragedy that we had here,” Nigro said.

It was not immediately clear what caused the helicopter to crash. Witnesses said it caught their attention because it was traveling faster and at a lower altitude than the helicopters that normally fly along the East River between Manhattan and Queens.

The helicopter, a Eurocopter AS350 owned by Liberty Helicopters, was flying as a private charter to take photos, Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill said at the news conference. A brochure for Liberty Helicopters, which is based in New Jersey, says it is the only company licensed to fly within 1,000 feet of the Statue of Liberty on all of its tours.

Its pilots have been “flying safely” for 28 years, according to the brochure. The company could not be reached for comment Sunday night.

People who witnessed the crash said they saw emergency responders pull one person out of the water — a man who was wrapped in a white blanket — and place him in an ambulance at about 8 p.m. About an hour later, three people were taken out of the water and placed on stretchers. Emergency responders were seen performing CPR on them as they were placed into ambulances.

Nigro said the pilot was at a hospital and in “OK” condition.

Kaderia Melchon was walking in Carl Schurz Park on the Upper East Side of Manhattan when she said she saw the helicopter descend into the water. Because it was red, she said she first thought it was a Fire Department helicopter.

After it crashed, it flipped over almost immediately, its landing skids pointing into the air, she said. A man emerged and shouted for help, she said.

Another witness, Xinran Jiang, who lives on Roosevelt Island with her husband, said helicopters zoom over the East River all the time but that this one immediately caught their attention.

“It almost looked like it was landing,” Jiang, who watched the crash from her bedroom window, said. “It wasn’t moving fast. We were curious where it was going to land. Then the next minute, it was diving into the river.”

By 9:30 p.m., a tugboat had taken the helicopter to the East 34th Street Heliport.

Helicopters are a common sight over New York City’s waterways, ferrying tourists on sightseeing trips and carrying commuters. Crashes are rare but not unheard-of.

In 2011, three Australian tourists died after a helicopter crashed into the East River; two others survived.

In 2004, a WNBC helicopter crashed onto a roof in Brooklyn while covering a shooting, but all three people on board survived. There were also no casualties when, in 2005, two helicopters — one of them carrying executives from MBNA Corp., a major credit card company — crashed into the East River within less than a week.

In 2009, when a helicopter carrying five Italian tourists was struck by a single-engine airplane over the Hudson River, everyone on both aircraft died.

In 1997, an executive at Colgate-Palmolive was killed when a helicopter crashed into the East River moments after takeoff. And from 1985-1990, three aircraft owned by the same company, Island Helicopter, went down in the East River.

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