NEW YORK — A helicopter carrying four tourists 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.
New York Police Department divers pulled the dead woman from about 50 feet (15 meters) of water about an hour after the Bell 206 helicopter went down around 3 p.m. All the passengers appeared to be British tourists, police said.
Officers usually assigned to counterterrorism duties heard of the crash and arrived at the scene to find the chopper inverted in the murky water with just its skids showing on the surface. Firefighters also responded to the scene.
The pilot, Paul Dudley, and three passengers were bobbing in the chilly water, and it looked as though a man was diving down and coming back up, possibly in an attempt to rescue the remaining passenger, witnesses said.
Officers jumped in and pulled out two women and a man, police spokesman Paul Browne said. The women were in critical condition, and the man was stable. All were hospitalized. The pilot made his own way to the riverbank and remained at the scene.
The private chopper 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.
Joseph Belez was watching helicopters from a boardwalk.
"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 searching for the fifth passenger.
Britain's Foreign Office said it was investigating reports the passengers were British.
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 (8 meters) 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. She said people on the dock started throwing in life jackets and buoys. Two people came up out of the waves.
"It didn't make much noise," she said. "It was just a splash and sunk."
The weather was clear but a little windy Tuesday, with winds of 10 mph (16 kph) gusting to 20 mph (30 kph) and visibility of 10 miles (16 kilometers), according to the weather station at LaGuardia Airport, across the river in Queens. There were a few clouds at 3,500 feet (1,000 meters) above sea level, well above the typical flying altitude for helicopters.
Carlos Acevedo, of Puerto Rico, was with his wife at a nearby park area when they saw the helicopter go down.
"It sank fast," he said. "In seconds. Like the water was sucking it in."
Lau Kamg was leaving a dentist's office and was walking nearby when he saw the chopper go down. He said it appeared to be in distress.
"The sound got my attention," he said. I saw it splash."
The Bell 206 Jet Ranger (pictured below) is one of the world's most popular helicopter models and was first flown in January 1966. They are light and highly maneuverable, making them popular with television stations and air taxi companies. A new one costs between $700,000 and $1.2 million.
On Aug. 8, 2009 a small plane collided with a helicopter over the Hudson River, on the other side of Manhattan, killing nine people, including five Italian tourists. A government safety panel found that an air traffic controller who was on a personal phone call had contributed to the accident.
The Federal Aviation Administration changed its rules for aircraft flying over New York City's rivers after that collision. Pilots must call out their positions on the radio and obey a 161 mph speed limit. Before the changes, such radio calls were optional.
Earlier that year, an Airbus 320 airliner landed in the Hudson River after hitting birds and losing both engines shortly after taking off from LaGuardia Airport. The flight, U.S. Airways Flight 1549, became known as the Miracle on the Hudson plane.
Photos from the dramatic rescue: