Search Continues in Hudson After Midair Collision


hudson-crash1Recovery workers resumed searching today for the victims and wreckage of a small private plane and a tourist helicopter that crashed in midair over the Hudson River a day earlier, killing all those aboard. By this afternoon, five bodies had been recovered from the water, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said at a news briefing. Around 1 p.m., rescue workers hauled the mangled remains of the helicopter out of the water and lifted it onto a Army Corps of Engineers barge.

Nine people – three on the airplane and six on the helicopter – are believed to have perished in the crash shortly before noon in the airspace above the river between Lower Manhattan and Hoboken, N.J., official said. Five of the occupants of the helicopter were tourists visiting from Italy.

Remains of the fourth body, a torso and a leg were found this morning around 8:30, and the fifth body was found about two hours later, said Paul J. Browne, the chief spokesman for the New York City Police Department It was unclear if the torso was that of a man or a woman or where, precisely, it was found in the Hudson, Mr. Browne said.

“It’s changing every minute, there’s 30 feet of water and two foot visibility,” Mr. Bloomberg said of the difficult rescue conditions.

By the afternoon, however, wreckage of the plane was spotted in two different places, according to Mr. Browne. “We believe we have located through sidescan sonar the wreckage of the plane – with the plane fuselage just north of the helicopter crash site, and additional plane wreckage to the east closer to mid-channel in about 50 feet of water,” he said.

The three bodies recovered yesterday were brought to the New York City shore, officials said, where they will examined by the city medical examiner’s office. Some family members and friends of the Italian victims had left their midtown hotel to go the office this morning to identify the bodies.

Ellen S. Borakove, a spokeswoman for the medical examiner’s office, said that autopsies would proceed on Sunday, thought it was not clear when the results of those tests would be completed.

In the drizzle and fog of this morning, boats, including those from the United States Coast Guard and the New York Police Departmenttmentld be seen working on the water from the short at Hoboken. A barge – equipped with some sort of derrick or crane – was also present on the estuary’s surface.

It took about 20 minutes for the crane to lift the hulking wreckage of the silver-toned helicopter entirely out of the water and onto the barge. Orange and yellow inflatable pontoons were visible in the middle of the crushed mass of struts, wires and metal.

Officials were having more difficulty finding the wreckage of the airplane, using side-scan sonar.. Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board are on hand, in the early stages of an investigation into the midair crash.

Witnesses saw a low-altitude accident in which the plane rolled up and into the helicopter, striking with a crack-like thunder as the helicopter’s blades and one of the plane’s wings flew off.

As witnesses watched from parks and balconies, three bodies were recovered, one floating in the water and two others from wreckage believed to be that of the helicopter, located by divers on the murky riverbed 30 feet down.

The helicopter victims who were five Italian tourists were identified as a woman, two men and two youths, according to the Italian Embassy – and a pilot aboard the helicopter, which had just taken off from the West 30th Street heliport in Manhattan. Aviation authorities identified the pilot and owner of the plane as Steven M. Altman, 60, of Ambler, Pa.; the two passengers were Mr. Altman’s brother and nephew: Daniel Altman, 49, of Dresher, Pa., and Douglas Altman, 16.

Reached at home, the pilot’s wife, Pamala, said her husband was licensed and had been scheduled to fly his plane on Saturday from Teterboro Airport in northern New Jersey to Ocean City, on the Jersey Shore.

The Italian tourists – Tiziana Perdrone, 44, Fabio Gallazzi, 49, Giacomo Gallazzi, 15, Michele Norelli, 51, and Filippo Norelli, 16 – were from the Bologna area, traveling together in a group of a dozen relatives and friends, according to officers with the Police Department’s community affairs division. Of the seven who did not board a helicopter and opted to wait for the others, three were direct relatives of the dead and four were friends.

It was the worst air accident in the New York City area since Nov. 12, 2001, when 265 people were killed in the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 in Belle Harbor, Queens, as it took off from Kennedy International Airport for the Dominican Republic. It was the first fatal crash since Oct. 11, 2006, when a small plane flying over the East River hit a 42-story building on Manhattan’s East Side, killing the Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor.

Yesterday’s crash raised questions about the scores of virtually unregulated low-altitude flights every day in a busy corridor over the Hudson. Helicopters and small planes may fly over the river under a 1,100-foot ceiling, well below a 5,000-foot minimum altitude in airspace reserved for airliners. Mr. Bloomberg, asked about federal rules for the corridor, said he did not favor changes in the rules, citing the city’s interests in tourism.

As investigators for the National Transportation Safety Board began an inquiry that was expected to take weeks or months, the convergence of the doomed aircraft seemed wildly improbable in retrospect. Federal Aviation Administration officials, citing radar tracks, said the airplane took off from Teterboro at 11:50 a.m., after stopping there for a half-hour and picking up a passenger. The plane arrived over the Hudson at 11:52 and turned south.

The helicopter, a European-made craft owned by a Liberty Helicopters, took off from the West 30th Street heliport at almost the same time for a sightseeing tour. The helicopter took off, headed out over the river, turned south and climbed to between 500 and 1,000 feet.

Today, as the recovery crews plied the grayish waters, a black inflatable rubber dinghy was seen a few hundred feet from the Hoboken shoreline.

Divers outfitted in black rubber suits could be seen pulling two long objects from the water – both objects wrapped in some type of white covering.

Onlookers gathered at the water’s edge, sipping coffee and mostly quietly gazing at the boats drifting in the water. One man who said he witnessed the crash from his balcony in a building nearby came out this morning to watch the recovery.

Chris Petrock, 38, a public relations worker for a publishing company, said he was talking with a friend on the phone on Saturday, watching the skyline and remarking at how much air traffic he was seeing, when the crash occurred.

“The helicopter literally was disintegrating in midair,” he said. “Pieces of the tail were coming off. The rotors got mangled.”

Watching the crash was upsetting, he said.

“Now I am watching divers pull bodies out of the water,” said Mr. Petrock. “It brings to mind your own mortality.”

On a sun-drenched day that beckoned many out of doors, there were countless witnesses to the dramatic denouement – joggers, bikers, strollers, people lunching in restaurants and lounging in high-rise apartments lining the Hudson – but many got only glimpses of what happened, looking out over the mile-wide river when they heard what sounded like distant thunder in a mostly clear sky.

Many said the small airplane, a white-and-red, single-engine Piper PA-32R, came up behind and under the helicopter. A Liberty pilot watching from the heliport radioed to warn the copter, said Deborah A. P. Hersman, chairwoman of the safety board.

“You have a fixed wing behind you,” he said. But he got no response.

The plane suddenly went into a left-turning roll, banking steeply, as if its pilot was unaware of impending danger, and at 11:56 a.m. rammed the rear underside of the copter not far off the Hoboken shoreline.

The aircraft appeared to break apart in midair – the plane’s left wing tumbling, the detached rotor blades of the helicopter spinning away like a child’s toy, witnesses said. The fuselages parted in a puff of dark smoke and fell away into the choppy blue-gray Hudson. It took only seconds, and the two craft were gone in the eerie silence that followed.

A passing Circle Line boat quickly diverted to the scene, followed by water taxis and other river craft, and within minutes police and fire boats and Coast Guard teams were headed for the crash site, but it was too late for rescues.

Air traffic controllers at Newark Liberty International Airport said the airplane had disappeared from its radar screens. Almost at the same time, two pilots in planes near the scene called in reports of an aircraft apparently in distress over the water, on the river’s western edge between the Lincoln and Holland Tunnels.

Moments later, the Police Department began receiving a flood of 911 calls, reporting that the plane and the helicopter had collided and gone down.

The search for bodies and the wreckage was suspended as night fell, although police boats remained in the water, the remnants of what had been a flotilla from local police and fire departments and the Coast Guard, a coordinated effort that drew praise from public officials on both sides of the Hudson.

Liberty Helicopters, which runs sightseeing excursions over the Hudson and New York Harbor, taking in the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and Manhattan, charges $130 for individual trips and up to $1,000 for charters.

Its record is not unblemished. In July 1997, a Liberty helicopter went down in the Hudson between Midtown Manhattan and Weehawken, N.J., but landed on inflated emergency pontoons. Eight people on board – seven tourists and the pilot – were rescued, uninjured. In 1997, a rotor on one of Liberty’s sightseeing helicopters clipped a Manhattan building, forcing an emergency landing, but no one was seriously injured.

{NY Times/ Newscenter}