As investigators try to piece together how a small plane and tourist helicopter came to enter each other’s airspace over the Hudson River on a clear summer day, divers were to search for clues to the crash believed to have claimed nine lives.
Three bodies were recovered Saturday, hours after the midday collision sent hundreds who were out enjoying the weekend searching for cover from falling debris.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Debbie Hersman told a news conference that a helicopter pilot on the ground at the heliport for Liberty Tours, which operated the doomed sightseeing craft, saw the plane approaching the helicopter and tried to alert the helicopter pilot.
“He radioed the accident helicopter and told him, ‘One-lima-hotel. You have a fixed-wing behind you.’ There was no response from the pilot,”‘ she said. Then, the pilot on the ground saw the plane’s right wing strike the helicopter “and both aircrafts descended into the Hudson River.”
The two aircraft went down just south of the stretch of river where a US Airways jet landed safely seven months ago. But this time, there was no miracle.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the midair crash was “unsurvivable.” The helicopter carried five Italians tourists and the plane had two passengers, including a child.
The river’s strong currents and poor visibility hampered divers’ efforts to recover the bodies. Hersman said challenging river conditions also prevented investigators from marking the location of the plane.
“I think they are coming back with some promising returns and they will continue to look” Sunday, she said.
She said she did not know if there were black boxes or other recording devices on the two aircrafts. Aircraft of their size are not required to have such equipment.
“Even if we do not recover any recording device .. the NTSB can still determine the cause of the accident,” Hersman added.
She said federal investigators did not know the altitude of the two craft, information it hoped to verify with air traffic control on Sunday.
The accident happened in a busy general aviation corridor over the river. Pilots have some freedom to pick their own route, as long as they stay under 1,000 feet and don’t stray too close to Manhattan’s skyscrapers. The skies over the river are often filled with pleasure craft, buzzing by for a view of the Statue of Liberty.
“We’ll be looking exactly at where these aircraft were located at the time of the collision,” Hersman said. “Visual flight rules prevail … you are supposed to be alert and see and avoid other aircraft in the vicinity.”
The NTSB also appealed for the public’s help, asking anyone with photos or video of the collision to contact investigators.
Saturday’s accident recalled another crash involving New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor, who died when their plane hit a skyscraper while flying a popular sightseeing route in 2006.
In January, the river was the scene of a spectacular aircraft landing that resulted in no loss of life after a US Airways flight taking off from LaGuardia Airport, in Queens, slammed into a flock of birds and lost power in both engines. The plane crash-landed in the river, and all 155 people on board were pulled to safety.
The NTSB has long expressed concern that federal safety oversight of helicopter tours isn’t rigorous enough. The Federal Aviation Administration hasn’t implemented more than a dozen NTSB recommendations aimed at improving the safety of the tours, called on-demand flight operations.
A report by the U.S. Department of Transportation’s inspector general last month found that 109 people died in accidents involving on-demand flights in 2007 and 2008, while no one died in commercial airline accidents.
The identities of the victims of Saturday’s crash were not immediately released. Italian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maurizio Massari confirmed there were Italians aboard the helicopter and said the ministry was working to find out further details through diplomats and authorities in New York.
The plane, a Piper PA-32, was registered to LCA Partnership in Fort Washington, Pa. The address is shared by a real estate company run by Steven Altman, of Ambler, Pa. A woman who answered the telephone Saturday at Altman’s home hung up, and police wouldn’t let reporters enter a private driveway leading to the home.
A person who answered the phone at a Liberty Tours office said the company would be releasing a statement. The company runs sightseeing excursions around the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and Manhattan at costs ranging from $130 to about $1,000.
Two years ago, a Liberty helicopter fell 500 feet from the sky during a sightseeing trip. The pilot was credited with safely landing the chopper in the Hudson and helping evacuate her seven passengers.
In 1997, a rotor on one of its sightseeing helicopters clipped a Manhattan building, forcing an emergency landing. No one was hurt.
Associated Press writers David B. Caruso, Samantha Gross, Suzanne Ma and Amy Westfeldt in New York City, Beth DeFalco in Hoboken, N.J., Samantha Henry in Teterboro, N.J., Kathy Matheson in Ambler, Pa., and Joan Lowy in Washington, D.C., and AP News researcher Julie Reed contributed to this report.
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