Nine people were killed when a light plane and a helicopter collided over New York, sending both aircraft plunging into the Hudson River.
New Yorkers enjoying a beautiful summer afternoon watched in horror as the small plane carrying three people including a child clipped the back of the helicopter, which had just taken off on a sightseeing trip with five Italian tourists aboard.
One eyewitness told the NY1 TV he saw a wing come off the plane and the helicopter “fell like a stone” into the river.
Search and rescue craft immediately rushed to the crash site but it quickly became apparent there would be no survivors. Three bodies had been recovered by night fall and officials said they held out no hope of finding survivors.
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New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg said: “This has changed from a rescue to a recovery mission. There’s not going to be a happy ending.”
Debbie Hersman, the chairwoman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said the helicopter, operated by Liberty Helicopter, a sightseeing helicopter company, had been located and marked with buoys and investigators were using side-scanning radar to try to locate the aircraft.
She said another Liberty pilot had witnessed the crash.
“He saw a small single-engine aircraft approaching from behind (the helicopter). … He stated that he saw the right wing of the aircraft impact the helicopter,” she said.
Witnesses spoke of a ‘loud boom’ as the aircraft collided, and crashed into the river.
“We heard a really loud crash which sounded like lightning or thunder,”one woman told local media. “They were both falling from the sky.”
Witnesses described seeing a low-flying plane smashing into the helicopter, and then wreckage scattering. One of the plane’s wings was severed by the impact.
Eyewitness Buzz Nahas told AFP he was the plane without one of its wings “fluttering” into the water.
“There was a loud pop, almost like a car backfire,”he said. “The helicopter dropped like a rock.”
Witnesses also spoke of seeing debris – either part of the plane’s wing or fragment of the chopper’s rotor – fluttering down.
Chunks of debris also fell on the New Jersey side of the river, narrowly missing motorists.
The plane, headed for Ocean City, New Jersey, left Teterboro Airport in New Jersey at 11:54 a.m. (1554 GMT), the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey said in a statement. It had landed at the airport 25 minutes earlier with the pilot aboard to pick up two passengers.
New York state Governor David Paterson offered the bereaved his condolences.
“What began as a beautiful day with blue skies has turned into a day of darkness for those who lost someone they love today,” he said.
The collision took place in a densely crowded air corridor used by commercial flights, private pilots and tourist helicopters.
It came six months after the now famous successful splash landing in the Hudson by Captain Chesley Sullenberger after his Airbus jet lost power when it hit a flock of wild geese.
New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine called Saturday’s accident “devastating” and said that safety measures needed checking.
“All of us in this region also need to take a long and serious look at the circumstances surrounding this crash to ensure that significant air traffic over the Hudson doesn’t come at the risk of the safety of New Jersey families who live along the riverfront,” he said.