Five people are dead after a chartered helicopter crashed into New York’s East River, and federal agencies are investigating the incident.
The helicopter’s pilot – the only survivor after the helicopter crashed into the chilly waters that separate Manhattan and Brooklyn – told investigators that the incident may have been caused by a passenger’s piece of luggage.
The helicopter is owned by Liberty Helicopters, and was chartered for a private photo shoot when it went down.
A senior law enforcement official told CNN that the 33-year-old pilot, identified by police as Richard Vance, said the piece of luggage may have accidentally hit the emergency fuel shutoff button, leading to the crash.
In an audio recording, the pilot can be be heard notifying officials that he was going down.
Two tourists were among those identified among the dead, but officials have withheld two of the names of victims pending family notification.
Among those identified as having been killed were Brian McDaniel, a firefighter from Dallas; Trevor Cadigan, a video journalist originally from Dallas; and Argentine tourist Vallejos Blanco.
Two helicopter employees were also killed.
The National Transportation Safety Board sent a team Monday morning, and the Federal Aviation Administration has said it will look into the matter.
A video of the crash was caught by a witness who said he began filming after noticing the aircraft was flying unusually low to the water.
In that footage, the helicopter is seen making what appears to be a level crash landing in the water before tipping, with its propellers splashing through the water.
When rescue crews got to the scene, the helicopter was reportedly overturned. The pilot had managed to get himself free, but the five others were not able to get out of their harnesses in time.
“One of the most difficult parts of the rescue were that five people were tightly harnessed,” Fire Department of New York Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. “People had to be cut out.”
To finish in the rescue operations, police called on a barge with a crane to pull the helicopter from the water.
Liberty Helicopters describes itself as “the largest and most experienced helicopter sightseeing service in New York City”, and has 10 Airbus helicopters, according to its website.
The helicopter company said in a statement that it is focusing on supporting the families of the victims and cooperating with federal investigators. The company also has referred journalist inquiries to investigators.
The Sunday night crash was the third crash for the company in 11 years, with the most recent occurring in 2009, according to local media. Nine people were killed in that crash, which occurred after the helicopter crashed into a small, private plane above the Hudson River.
Another crash occurred in 2007 when one of their helicopters crashed into the Hudson, but all eight people on board were able to escape and survive the incident.