Investigators with the National Transportation Safety Board survey the site Monday of a helicopter crash in New York City's East River that killed five people. Photo courtesy NTSB/Twitter
March 12 (UPI) -- The pilot of a helicopter that crashed in New York City's East River -- killing five people -- said a piece of luggage may have inadvertently shut down the engine and caused the aircraft to fall into the water.
Officials said the Eurocopter AS350 chopper, operated by Fly Liberty Charter, left Kearny, N.J., and was on a photo shoot when it plunged into the frigid river after a flight of about 11 minutes.
Before the aircraft struck the water and overturned, the pilot, identified as Rick Vance, radioed to an air traffic controller, "Mayday, mayday, mayday, East River. Engine failure."
A conversation moments before the crash indicates the pilot requested permission from air traffic controllers to fly up the river and over Manhattan's Central Park. The pilot then issued his distress call.
During the transmission, the pilot of another helicopter broke in and said he could see the crashed helicopter upside down in the water.
A witness said the pilot was the only one to emerge from the water in the moments after the crash and immediately yelled for help.
Citing a senior law enforcement official, CNN reported Monday that Vance told investigators a piece of passenger luggage may have hit an emergency fuel shutoff switch and killed the engine.
The National Transportation Safety Board is investigating the crash, including reports that the door of the helicopter may have been open in flight -- and that the passengers' tight safety harnesses may have impeded their rescues.
Vance was taken to New York Presbyterian Hospital, where he was treated and released.
"There were six people on the helicopter," FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. "The pilot freed himself. The other five did not. The police, fire divers entered the water and removed the other five. The pilot is OK."
Two of the victims died on the scene, while three others were removed from the water and died at the hospital. Police identified the victims as 26-year-old Brian McDaniel; 34-year-old Daniel Thompson; 29-year-old Tristian Hill; 26-year-old Trevor Cadigan; and 29-year-old Carla Vallejos Blanco.
Officials said the helicopter sank in about 50 feet of water when it went down in the river near East 89th Street and Carl Schurz Park in Manhattan at around 7 p.m. Sunday.
The New York Police Department now has possession of the helicopter.
The Federal Aviation Administration said neither the aircraft or pilot has been involved in prior crashes. Liberty Helicopters, though, has had two previous incidents, both in the Hudson River.