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NTSB Releases Preliminary Report In Deadly East River Helicopter Crash

March 26, 2018 - 11:16 pm

NEW YORK (1010 WINS) -- The pilot of a helicopter that went down in the East River earlier this month told investigatiors that an emergency fuel shutoff switch had already been flipped off, and a passenger’s restraint harness was spotted underneath it.

The National Transportation Safety Board released its preliminary report Monday about the helicopter crash, which happened on the evening of Sunday, March 11 and left all five passengers dead. The passengers were snapping sunset photos of the Manhattan skyline on the the doors-off helicopter flight.

Read the NTSB Report

The pilot, 33-year-old Richard Vance, had previously told NYPD investigators that one of the passenger's safety harnesses may have inadvertently wrapped around the emergency fuel shut off button and by the time he noticed he could not restart the engine.

He told the NTSB that a short time before that, a front-seat passenger had slid across the bench seat toward him and leaned back to take a photo of his own feet outside the helicopter.

The passengers boarded the helicopter at Helo Kearny Heliport in Kearny, New Jersey, the NTSB said. Before starting the helicopter, the pilot gave a full safety briefing – including explaining how to use a cutting tool to release the harnesses, the pilot told the NTSB. Each passenger had a small pouch with the cutting tool inside.

The helicopter took off behind two other helicopters and headed toward the Statue of Liberty at an altitude of 300 to 500 feet, the pilot told the NTSB. The outboard passengers stayed in their seats and restraints but turned sideways to take photos, while the inboard passengers removed their seatbelts but stayed in their harnesses as they sat on the floor with their feet on the helicopter’s skids, the pilot told the NTSB.

The helicopter flew at 500 feet to the Brooklyn Bridge and headed up to the East River at Central Park, the pilot told the NTSB. The pilot then asked LaGuardia Airport air traffic control to fly at 2,000 feet and started a shallow climb while the passengers on the left side began snapping photos of Midtown Manhattan.

The pilot then slowed the helicopter down so passengers could take photos of Central Park, the pilot said. At that point, the pilot told the NTSB he saw one passenger’s seat belt was hanging from his seat, and he asked the passenger to put the restraint back on, which he did.

As the helicopter flew along the eastern side of Central Park, the front-seat passenger turned sideways, slid across the double-bench seat toward the pilot, leaned back, and stuck his feet out to photograph them outside the helicopter, the pilot told the NTSB.

As Vance turned south just after that, the nose of the helicopter then turned right faster than he expected and he noticed the engine pressure and fuel pressure warning lights were on.

He told the NTSB he believed he had experienced an engine failure.

Vance briefly considered landing the helicopter in Central Park, but decided there were too many people there, he told the NTSB. He yelled at the passengers to get back into their seats.

Vance was not sure he could make it to the East River, so he slowed down the rotor so he could “glide better,” he told the NTSB. He twice tried to restart the engine and failed, and then activated the helicopter flotation devices at an altitude of about 800 feet.

As the pilot reached down for the emergency fuel shutoff lever, he realized that it was in the “off” position, and that part of the front seat passenger’s tether was underneath it.

The pilot flipped the fuel shutoff lever back to the “on” position and tried to restart the engine, the report said. This time, the engine appeared to start up, but the pilot said it “wasn’t spooling up fast enough” and he turned the fuel shutoff lever back off, he told the NTSB.

“He had to decide to commit to actually bringing the aircraft down onto the river,” said aviation official Mark Rosenker.

The helicopter hit the water, and the chin bubble on the pilot’s side started filling with water, the pilot told the NTSB. As the helicopter went on tilting, the pilot decided to escape – and was fully underwater once he unbuckled his own restraint, he told the NTSB.

Vance used both hands to climb out, and surfaced about four feet away from the nose of the helicopter and crawled up onto the belly, but could not see anything, the report said.

A tugboat crew came and rendered assistance, and first responders arrived shortly afterward, the NTSB report said.

Police and fire divers entered the water and had to cut the victims out of the harnesses strapping them into their seats. Two were pronounced dead at the scene, while the other three were taken to an area hospital where they later died.

The report does not assign cause or blame for why the fuel switch was in the left in “off” position. There had been earlier reports that a passenger bag strap might have been in the way.

“It pretty much is leaving it up in the air, with only the fact knowing that according to the pilot, there was a strap near the area of the fuel switch. But when in fact the investigators were able to document what in fact the aircraft looked like, that switch had been turned off again,” Rosenker said.

NTSB senior aviation investigator Todd Gunther said the day after the crash that there were three flotation devices on the skids of helicopter, all of which had deployed when the helicopter came to rest and was towed. The flotation devices are supposed to keep the helicopter upright in the water, but that did not happen.

The report said the helicopter flotation devices failed to work properly – at least on one side.

The use of harnesses that are difficult to get out of is also an issue, Rosenker explained.

“Only a few days ago, the NTSB made an urgent recommendation to the FAA that they should prohibit the use of these kinds of harnesses, which are very, very difficult to get out of in an emergency situation,” he said. “The FAA has recognized this, and they are working very hard to come up with some new rules and regulations that will make sure that these kinds of harnesses are not going to be used again.”

Rosenker said the pilot auto-rotated as he was trained to do with no engine to get him from Central Park to the East River.

“The real question was is how did the landing occur, and they’ll be looking at that very carefully, because the aircraft was pushed over for some reason, and thereby began to take on water,” he said. “This aircraft had floats, and they’ll be looking at those very, very carefully, and they’ll continue to do that and study it. They will have answers, they will make recommendations, and hopefully, this will never happen again.”

Police identified the victims as 34-year-old Daniel Thompson, 29-year-old Tristian Hill, 26-year-old Trevor Cardigan, 26-year-old Brian McDaniel and 29-year-old Carla Vallegjos Blanco, of Argentina.

McDaniel was a fire-rescue officer with the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department since May 2016. Cardigan, who was originally from Dallas, was a video journalist who had finished an internship a few weeks ago with the business new site, Business Insider.

Vance was taken by a fire boat to shore and was taken to a hospital to be checked out, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said at the time.

After the crash, the Federal Aviation Administration halted doors-off helicopter flights. The order applied to all flights where safety restraints cannot be released quickly.

The family of crash victim Cardigan has also filed a lawsuit, accusing the owner and operators of the helicopter, as well as the pilot, of negligence and carelessness.