Helicopter Crashes in East River, 1 Dead

The family of tourists was in town to celebrate a birthday.

By Jonathan Dienst, Shimon Prokupecz, Andrew Siff, Chris Glorioso and Brian Thompson
|  Wednesday, Oct 5, 2011  |  Updated 2:01 PM EDT
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    Video: Helicopter Crash in East River

    Amateur video taken just after a helicopter crashed in the East River. Courtesy Steven Castro.
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    A tourist visiting New York City with her family to celebrate her 40th birthday died in a helicopter crash in the East River Tuesday afternoon that also injured three relatives.

    Authorities said the helicopter had just taken off from the 34th Street heliport at 3:17 p.m. with five people aboard when it turned around after unknown issues in the air.

    "From what we know so far, the pilot reported having trouble keeping aloft, and he tried to turn back but crashed into the water just north of the landing pad," Mayor Bloomberg said at the scene.

    When rescuers arrived, one passenger was standing on the skids of the helicopter, which was upside down and sinking rapidly. Others were clinging to the aircraft and wreckage. The pilot was also rescued.

    Sonia Marra, who turned 40 on Sunday, was lost underwater as her loved ones were rescued. She was later found dead about an hour after the crash, following an extensive underwater search.

    The survivors included Marra's girlfriend, Helen Tamaki, 43, along with Marra's 60-year-old mother, Harriet Nicholson, and her 71-year-old stepfather Paul Nicholson.

    NBC New York has learned that the pilot, Paul Dudley, is the same pilot who safely landed a Cessna 172 in Calvert Vaux Park near Coney Island in November 2006. In that case, the plane's engine failed and Dudley was forced to make an emergency landing.

    The chopper on Tuesday crashed in a spot where the river is 50 feet deep, officials said.

    Dan Sweeney, a manager at the NYC Water Club, said he saw the splashdown.

    "It went down pretty fast, you could see the splash, you could see the top of it and it just disappeared," he said. "It looked like it was trying to land at the heliport and missed the landing."

    The rescuers told NBC New York they only had seconds to prevent an even more tragic outcome as one of the passengers flailed in the water.

    "I was able to get my arms underneath him, by lowering myself onto the pier and laying face down," said Wess Doskocil of New York City's Office of Emergency Management, who assisted in the rescue. "We were trying to pull him out of the water, and we didn't want him to go under. His jacket was coming off, so we were able to get him by the belt."

    Tamaki and Harriet Nicholson were both in critical condition; Paul Nicholson was treated and released. The Nicholsons are originally from England but were living in Portugal. 

    Bloomberg said "all New Yorkers feel for this family."

    Dudley refused medical treatment at the scene of crash Tuesday and later returned to Linden Airport in New Jersey, where he is director, sources said.

    The aircraft, identified as a Bell 206 Ranger, was pulled from the water at about 6:45 p.m.

    The helicopter will be taken to a location where the National Transportation Safety Board can take over the investigation.

    The NTSB said it had dispatched a team to New York.

    Two helicopters crashed in the East River in 2005, just three days apart. A sightseeing chopper with seven people aboard crashed on June 14, and a corporate chopper with eight aboard crashed June 17. There were no fatalities in either case.

    Two years later in July 2007, a sightseeing chopper with eight people aboard crashed in the Hudson River, and again, there were no fatalities.

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