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Photo Shoot Helicopter Crash in NYC’s East River Kills 5


A private helicopter being used for a photography flight crashed into New York City’s East River on Sunday, killing the 5 passengers on board who were “tightly harnessed” when the chopper became submerged. The pilot managed to escape.

The helicopter was owned and operated by Liberty Helicopters, which offers 10-minute “Photo Flights” for $99+ per seat.

But the passengers involved had purchased their flights through FlyNYON.

The New York Times reports that the first 911 calls were placed at 7:07 pm, shortly after the helicopter took off, and multiple witnesses saw (and filmed) the relatively slow crash as it occurred:

The helicopter tour allows photographers to lean over and shoot photos through the open door of the chopper as it flies over the city, but this also meant the passengers need to be tightly strapped using heavy harnesses — safety devices that directly caused the photographers’ deaths when the helicopter flipped upside down and became completely submerged.

If you’d like to see what this kind of experience is like, NYC-based photographer Eric Galenzoga shared this experience on a FlyNON tour (a different company than Liberty Helicopters that has a working relationship with Liberty) of NYC a couple of years ago (and photographer Austin Paz used the same company to shoot the NYC ball drop for New Year’s Eve this year):

“With the current in the East River [running] at about three knots and the downed helicopter lashed to a tugboat, rescue divers […] had only one option,” the Times writes. “They […] resigned themselves to drifting with the current as they tried to cut five passengers out of the helicopter, their bodies underwater and cinched with harnesses heavy enough to let them lean over and snap photographs of the New York City skyline.

“By the time the divers plucked them out, it was too late. The five passengers — four men and a woman — all died.”

33-year-old pilot Richard Vance was able to quickly free himself, but the passengers apparently don’t have any means to remove their harnesses and quickly escape through the already-open doorway — passengers are reportedly only given knives to escape in the event of an emergency.

Other details have emerged in the hours since the crash, including the fact that the pilot had made a ‘mayday’ call reporting “engine failure,” and that he intentionally went down in the river to avoid crashing in Manhattan. And when the helicopter touched down, yellow inflatable pontoons on the helicopter failed to keep it afloat. The pilot has also since said that a passenger may have accidentally hit the emergency fuel shutoff button.

The National Transportation Safety Board has opened an investigation into the crash. The identities of the 5 victims have not yet been made public.

Update: Authorities have announced the identities of the 5 victims. They included one journalist, two tourists, and two helicopter employees.

Correction: According to the New York Times, authorities had originally stated that the helicopter was owned by Liberty Helicopters and flown by FlyNYON. FlyNYON tells PetaPixel that the helicopter was being operated by Liberty Helicopters but customers of FlyNYON were onboard. Here’s the company’s statement provided to PetaPixel:

NYONAir is terribly saddened to acknowledge that its customers were passengers on the Liberty Helicopters flight that went down in the East River last night. We extend our deepest sympathies to the family members and loved ones of those involved in this tragic event. NYONAir is fully cooperating with the FAA and NTSB in their investigation and those agencies should be referred to for any further information.