NEW YORK — The pilot who survived a helicopter crash that killed his five passengers told investigators he believed a passenger’s bag might have hit an emergency fuel shutoff switch in the moments before the chopper went down, a federal official told The Associated Press on Monday.
The official said the National Transportation Safety Board also is scrutinizing why an emergency flotation device apparently didn’t deploy properly when the tour helicopter went down in the East River. The floats are supposed keep a helicopter upright; the Eurocopter AS350 that crashed Sunday overturned and submerged.
The official was briefed on the investigation but not authorized to speak publicly about it and spoke on condition of anonymity.
National Transportation Safety Board investigators began working Monday to determine what caused the crash, which killed a Texas firefighter, an Argentine woman, a young video journalist and two others on what authorities said was a charter flight to take photos.
Pilot Richard Vance, who managed to free himself from the rapidly sinking chopper, was the only survivor.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” he said in an emergency radio call as the aircraft foundered. “East River — engine failure.”
No one answered an email Monday to Vance, 33, a licensed commercial pilot for seven years who’s also licensed as a flight instructor. A possible phone number for him in Danbury, Connecticut, wasn’t working.
A floating crane slowly raised the submerged helicopter to the surface Monday and towed it off to be examined as Democratic New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said federal regulators should suspend flights by the helicopter’s owner until the facts of the crash are known.
The owner, Liberty Helicopters, referred all inquiries to federal authorities. The Federal Aviation Administration said it was investigating whether the company had been complying with regulations.
A tour and charter helicopter company, Liberty has been involved in at least five accidents or other incidents in the last 10 years, according to FAA data. “Incidents” can include events that end in safe landings, but an August 2009 collision over the Hudson River between a Liberty chopper and a small, private plane killed nine people, including a group of Italian tourists.
The company paid $23,576 in fines in 2010 and 2011 for violating maintenance, record-keeping and flight operations rules, according to the FAA. Three subsequent maintenance violations in 2011 and 2012 didn’t result in any fines.
Witnesses to Sunday’s crash said the helicopter was flying noisily, then suddenly dropped and quickly submerged. A bystander’s video showed the helicopter land hard and then capsize in water about 50 feet (15 meters) deep.
Emergency divers had to get the passengers out of tight safety harnesses while they were upside down, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.
The passengers who died included Dallas Fire-Rescue Officer Brian McDaniel, 26, his high school friend Trevor Cadigan, 26, a journalist who hailed from Dallas but had recently moved to New York; and Carla Vallejos Blanco, 29, a tourist from Argentina, according to its consulate. The other victims were Daniel Thompson, 34, and Tristian Hill, 29, according to police.
McDaniel had been with the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department since May 2016.
“He decided he wanted to help people” and set out to do it, said Cole Collins, a childhood friend from Dallas. “He didn’t care about being a flashy person or making a lot of money. He loved his family and friends and this city.”
Another longtime friend, Joe Masinter, said McDaniel was a friend so caring that he called Masinter’s mother and send her flowers when she had surgery.
“He was just straight compassion and loyalty” and humility, Masinter said.
McDaniel was visiting Cadigan, who had recently finished an internship at the Business Insider news site.
“He was a smart, talented, and ambitious young journalist and producer who was well-liked and made a big contribution,” Business Insider said in a statement.
A 2016 graduate of Southern Methodist University, Cadigan had previously freelanced with an entertainment and culture site managed by the Dallas Morning News, writing and producing videos on such topics as craft beer, and interned with his hometown’s WFAA-TV. His father, Jerry, is the station’s production manager.