A photo tour helicopter crashed into New York City’s East River on Sunday, claiming the lives of the five passengers who were onboard. The helicopter was owned and operated by New Jersey-based Liberty Helicopters as part of a doors-off photo tour that allows passengers to take aerial images of the city.
According to the New York Times, the tragedy was caused by engine failure. The helicopter’s pilot, Richard Vance, made an emergency call shortly after taking off, later telling investigators that the fuel shut-off switch may have been accidentally hit by a passenger or some onboard equipment.
Vance reportedly aimed toward the river as an emergency landing site to avoid crashing in Manhattan; however, after hitting the water, the helicopter’s inflatable pontoons were unable to keep the chopper upright. The helicopter quickly capsized, and though Vance was able to escape and scream for help, the passengers were unable to cut themselves loose from the heavy-duty harnesses that are used as part of these doors-off tour.
Firefighter and police divers worked as quickly as they could against 5 mph currents to try and free the passengers, but they were not able to rescue any of them in time.
The tragedy highlights concerns about marketing helicopter photo tours to tourists. These doors-off tours require strapping passengers into the helicopter using heavy-duty harnesses, equipping them with only a knife to cut themselves free in the event of a crash. And while all passengers must watch a short safety video, this is hardly adequate training to deal with an actual emergency.
According to the Times, the passengers on this helicopter tour were shown a 10-minute safety video about using the knife to escape the harnesses; however, the video didn’t include instructions on cutting through nylon ties during a water landing. Critics have long called on officials to restrict helicopter traffic over Manhattan, but the latest incident has also called into question whether the doors-off photo tourism industry should face greater regulation.
An investigation into the crash, including why the helicopter’s inflatable pontoons failed to prevent the vehicle from sinking, is still underway.