HOBOKEN, N.J. — Hudson River divers on Monday found the wreckage of a small plane and one of two victims missing following a midair collision with a sightseeing helicopter that killed nine people.
The wreckage of the single-engine Piper was found in about 60 feet of water in the middle of the river, indicating it had drifted from the spot where it crashed, closer to New Jersey's riverbank, said the New York Police Department's top spokesman, Paul Browne. It was found on its side with no wings visible.
NYPD divers couldn't remove the man's body from the aircraft wreckage. The Army Corps of Engineers was being consulted about trying to pull the plane to the surface of the river, which is less than three-quarters of a mile wide at the crash site between New York and New Jersey. The mangled helicopter was raised from the river Sunday.
Nine people – two men and a boy from a Pennsylvania family on the plane and five Italian tourists and a pilot on the helicopter – died in Saturday's collision, which occurred in a congested flyway popular with sightseers. Before Monday afternoon, seven bodies had been recovered.
At an afternoon briefing, National Transportation Safety Board chief Debbie Hersman said an eight-day NTSB survey of the river corridor before the collision had counted about 225 aircraft flying within a 3-mile radius of the collision site each day.
The airspace where many of these tour craft fly is below 1,100 feet, where pilots are largely free to choose their own routes, radioing their positions periodically but not communicating regularly with air traffic controllers.
Hersman said air traffic controllers at Teterboro (N.J.) Airport told the pilot of the small plane to switch radio frequencies so controllers at Newark (N.J.) Airport could communicate with him but Newark controllers never made contact. She said a Teterboro controller asked the plane pilot if he wanted to go down the river or southwest.
When the Piper pilot answered, "Either," the controller told him to "Let me know."
"OK, tell you what," pilot Steven Altman answered, "I'll take down the river."
The divers Monday fought currents exceeding 3 knots. Silt reduced visibility to less than 6 inches in some places on the river bottom and was never better than a foot, said New Jersey State Police Lt. Albert Ponenti.
Police suspended their diving operations Monday evening and were to return to the water Tuesday.
All seven victims recovered have been positively identified through dental records and fingerprints, the New York medical examiner's office said. Autopsies completed Monday found they died from blunt-impact injuries.
Italian Ambassador Giovanni Castellaneta said he had met with the medical examiner in New York and with relatives of the five Italian victims.
"Today the relatives were asking me, 'How it can be that a holiday in New York can become such a tragedy?'" Castellaneta said in Italian. He promised to find out and said, "We intend to keep that promise."
About a half-dozen relatives of the Italians were still in New York, including cousins and uncles, waiting to travel back with the bodies. A group of 10 tourists traveled from Italy, two to celebrate a 25th wedding anniversary.
"They are destroyed by pain," Castellaneta said.
Other members of the tourist group had gone on a helicopter ride a day before the crash and had planned to go again, he said.
"They told me that the day before, they had the tour on New York City and were very happy about the tour," Castellaneta said. "And they had booked another tour, but of course that was canceled."
Prosecutors in Bologna, Italy, on Monday opened a routine investigation into the crash after receiving a complaint from Codacons, an Italian consumers' group. The probe for multiple manslaughter and causing a disaster does not name any suspects.
The NTSB's Hersman said on NBC's "Today" show that investigators will eventually examine the aircrafts' structural integrity and will try to determine how the initial impact occurred. She declined to speculate about the cause of the crash, whose investigation is expected to take months.
Witnesses said the small plane approached the helicopter, which had just taken off from Manhattan's West Side for a 12-minute tour, from behind and clipped it with a wing. Hersman said the helicopter was gaining altitude when the two hit. Both aircraft split and fell into the river, scattering debris and sending weekenders enjoying the beautiful day running for cover.
Hays reported from New York. Associated Press writers Sara Kugler and Maria Sanminiatelli in New York and Geoff Mulvihill and Samantha Henry in Hoboken, N.J., also contributed to this report.