NYC East River chopper crash kills 1; 4 rescued

NEW YORK (AP) — A helicopter on a private tour with five people aboard sputtered and crashed into the East River on Tuesday afternoon shortly after takeoff from a riverbank heliport, killing one passenger and injuring three others.

The 40-year-old victim apparently was trapped inside as the chopper sank about 50 feet below the surface of the swift-moving water, police said. New York Police Department divers pulled her from the water about 90 minutes after the Bell 206 Jet Ranger went down at around 3 p.m. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

Emergency crews arrived within seconds of the crash to find the helicopter upside-down in the murky water with just its skids showing on the surface. The pilot, Paul Dudley, and three passengers were bobbing, and witnesses reported a man diving down, possibly in an attempt to rescue the remaining passenger.

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Divers work in the East River on Tuesday in 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 passenger and injuring the others.

The passengers were friends of the pilot’s family: a husband and wife who were British and living in Portugal; the wife’s daughter, also British, who died at the scene; and the daughter’s Australian friend. The daughter and friend were living in Australia.

The pilot’s wife, Sunhe Dudley, told the Associated Press she had spoken to her husband briefly after the crash.

“I think that he’s OK,” she said. “These were actually very dear friends of ours that were in the helicopter.”

The passengers were pulled from the water shortly after emergency crews arrived on the scene, police spokesman Paul Browne said. Fire department rescue paramedics revived both women, who were in critical condition; the man was stable. All were hospitalized. The pilot swam to shore and was uninjured.

The private chopper apparently had run into trouble and was trying to return to the heliport when it went into the river off 34th Street in midtown Manhattan, a few blocks south of the United Nations headquarters. It’s unclear what happened, but witnesses reported it was sputtering and appeared to be in some type of mechanical distress.

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.

Joseph Belez was watching helicopters from a boardwalk and saw the crash.

“It was going up, and then all of a sudden it just spun itself and went down to the water,” he said. “I was just watching it take off, and it was just all of a sudden spinning. It just went down. It was a shock. It really was.”

A massive rescue effort was under way within minutes of the crash, with a dozen boats and divers down into the cold, grey water. Police officers doing a counterterrorism drill nearby jumped into the water wearing their uniforms, and without any rescue equipment they pulled the three passengers to shore.

“The pilot did indicate that there was somebody still in the helicopter,” Lt. Larry Serras said. “By the time we swam to the helicopter it was completely submerged.”

Officer Jason Gregory, one of the divers who brought the woman’s body to the surface, said the helicopter was upside down in the sediment. He said the woman was in the back seat and wasn’t buckled in by any seat belt.

The helicopter was from Linden, N.J., near the Statue of Liberty and the Newark, N.J., international airport and a popular base and refueling stop for helicopters operating in New York. The pilot apparently reported problems in the helicopter and said he was turning around, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said.

Paul Dudley is a commercial pilot and owns Linden Airport Services, the company that manages the Linden municipal airport under a 20-year contract with the city, Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka said.

“He flies light aircraft, he flies helicopters,” Gerbounka said. “He’s an accomplished pilot.”

In November 2006, Dudley landed a Cessna 172 light plane in a park near Coney Island in Brooklyn after the engine failed. No one was hurt during the emergency landing, and the plane was taken back to Linden after mechanics removed the wings.

The National Transportation Safety Board was on the scene and crews pulled the wreckage from the water about four hours after it went down. The chopper would be taken to the police department’s Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. The airport in Linden was locked down briefly pending the arrival of Federal Aviation Administration and NTSB investigators.

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