By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 9, 2009
NEW YORK, Aug. 8 -- A small plane collided with a tourist helicopter over the Hudson River on Saturday on a crystal-clear summer afternoon, ripping the rotor blades from the helicopter and severing one of the plane's wings, sending both aircraft plunging into the murky water and killing all nine people on board.
Witnesses to the crash described how debris from the two aircraft disappeared within seconds beneath the water's surface, and rescue workers soon determined that there were no survivors, officials said.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) said the plane, which had just left Teterboro, N.J., was carrying a pilot and two passengers, including a child. The helicopter, which had just taken off from Manhattan's West 30th Street heliport, carried a pilot and five Italian tourists. The crash occurred about noon.
"It would appear that the airplane ran into the backside of the helicopter," Bloomberg said, saying the precise cause of the collision may not be known for days or weeks, pending an investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board.
"It is a great tragedy," Bloomberg said, calling this one of "the largest accidents resulting in death in the New York area in modern days." The last large-scale deadly plane crash in New York was Nov. 12, 2001 -- two months after the Sept. 11 attacks -- when American Airlines Flight 587 taking off from John F. Kennedy International Airport crashed into a residential area of Queens, killing 260 people on the plane and five on the ground.
The crash Saturday also recalled a mishap Jan. 15, when a US Airways jet lost power in both engines and the pilot safely ditched the plane in the same river, saving the lives of all 155 people on board.
"This is not going to have a happy ending, like when the Airbus went down on the river and everyone survived," Bloomberg said.
"This has changed from a rescue to a recovery mission," the mayor said. "Sadly, there's not a lot of rescue to be done."
The river in that area is about 30-feet deep, and visibility was said to be poor -- just two feet. About three hours after the crash, at 3 p.m., divers had found the wreckage of the helicopter. "There are some bodies in the wreckage that we found," Bloomberg said. "They're studying now how to get them out safely."
By the time conditions forced the search to be halted for the night, three bodies had been recovered and six remained missing, as did the wreckage of the plane. The search will resume at 7 a.m. Sunday, said Deborah Hersman, chairwoman of the NTSB.
Hersman said investigators have one particularly good witness to the collision, a fellow pilot from the helicopter sightseeing company, Liberty Helicopters. He saw the plane approaching and tried to radio the pilot of the helicopter but got no response, Hersman said.
That corridor of the Hudson River is normally crowded, with tourist helicopters and planes sharing a narrow stretch. The helicopters have a common frequency used only for navigating the Hudson -- there is a separate frequency just for the East River on the opposite side of Manhattan -- and plane pilots are able, but are not required, to listen in to hear where other aircraft are located. Bloomberg said using that system is voluntary.
The Teterboro airport in New Jersey is popular with small private planes. Authorities could not immediately say who was aboard the plane that crashed.
New Yorkers out enjoying the clear, sunny day were horrified at the scene, which some said resembled something out of a Hollywood movie. Interviewed on NY1, the local cable television station, a parade of eyewitnesses, some from Hoboken, on the New Jersey side of the river, described how the plane seemed to hit the helicopter, which was beneath it, from behind.
Most said there was little sound -- a "pop" -- and no explosion. And several said they saw debris flying, including the rotor blades of the helicopter.
"The plane rolled into the side of the helicopter," said one young man interviewed, who said he happened to be looking up when he noticed that the two aircraft seemed to be too close. "The rotors of the helicopter just kind of splintered off in every direction."
Bloomberg said: "There is some evidence from eyewitnesses that one of the wings of the airplane was severed."
The plane would not have been allowed to fly over Manhattan but could have followed the river south.