A tugboat crew was the first on the scene of a fatal helicopter crash in New York’s East River Sunday evening, securing the sinking aircraft so rescue divers could extricate trapped passengers, according to city officials.
The 64’x24’9.6″, 1,600-hp Foxy 3, operated by Fox Marine Corp., Easton, Pa., was nearby when the helicopter went down around 7 p.m. near Manhattan’s East 86th Street north of Roosevelt Island.
The aircraft, a Eurocopter AS350 operated by Liberty Helicopters, a New Jersey-based company that flies tours and charter flights around the city, was carrying five passengers for a chartered photo shoot, police Commissioner James O’Neill said at a press conference. Television station NBC4 reported the pilot issued a mayday radio distress call saying he had an engine failure.
The helicopter overturned, and the pilot escaped from the cockpit, calling for help. The Foxy 3 crew came alongside and secured the tail of the aircraft to the port side of their tug.
Police and fire units, the Coast Guard and other tugs converged on the scene to search for survivors. Rescue divers jumped in, contending with “very difficult conditions” of a 4-knot current and water temperature below 40°, said fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro.
Two police scuba divers entered the overturned helicopter to cut five passengers out of their seat harnesses. Two were pronounced dead at the scene and three died at hospitals, according to city officials.
The recovered helicopter was taken by tugboat to the East 34th Street heliport, and lifted the next day by the Driftmaster, a Corps of Engineers vessel usually employed for lifting floating debris out of the harbor. The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched a team to start its investigation into the accident.