The helicopter pilot who was the lone survivor of Sunday’s crash into New York City’s East River made a chilling and frantic distress call moments before the aircraft plunged into the frigid waters, quickly repeating “mayday” into his radio.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” the pilot — identified by the New York Post as 33-year-old Richard Vance — called out over his radio seconds before going down in a crash that left all five of his passengers dead. “East River engine failure!”
Vance managed to survive by climbing onto a raft, but the passengers, who were part of a tour operated by New Jersey-based Liberty Helicopters, all died. It reportedly is the third crash in the past 11 years involving the company.
“It took a while for the divers to get these people out. They worked very quickly as fast as they could,” Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. “It was a great tragedy that we had here.”
The passengers were recovered shortly after the 7:06 p.m. crash by police and fire department divers, who had to remove them from tight harnesses while they were upside down, he added.
Three of the passengers were listed in critical condition after being rushed to nearby hospitals, where they later died. Two were declared dead at the scene and police said the pilot freed himself and was rescued by a passing tugboat.
Officials said the water Sunday night was frigid, with temperatures around 40 degrees.
Video posted on Twitter of the crash showed a red helicopter land hard in the river and then flip on its side as its rotors beat the water.
Police sources told the New York Post the helicopter was being flown by Vance, a native of Danbury, Conn.
“He’s a very good pilot,” his father, Anthony Vance, told the newspaper, adding Richard has flown “a lot of years” with a commercial pilot’s license.
A LinkedIn page purportedly belonging to Vance said he has been employed by Liberty Helicopters since April 2016.
The group of five passengers, who officials said were flying as part of one of the company’s tours, were on the private Eurocopter AS350 for a photo shoot when it crashed.
Liberty Helicopters says on its website it has been in business since 1990 and offers “unparalleled safety records and a commitment to customer service.”
Sunday’s crash is the third one involving the company in the past 11 years, according to reports.
In 2009, a sightseeing helicopter of the same model and operated by Liberty Helicopters collided with a small, private plane over the Hudson River, killing nine people, including a group of Italian tourists, the Associated Press reported.
Two years earlier, one of the company’s helicopters, carrying eight people, dropped into the Hudson River but everyone was able to escape, according to WABC.
One witness told the New York Post she watched Sunday’s crash unfold from her apartment window and “immediately thought someone was in there and not going to live.”
“By the time we got out here, we couldn’t see [the helicopter],” Mary Lee said. “It was under water.”
Another witness, Arineh Nazarian, described seeing the helicopter crash while she and others were eating dinner.
“We noticed a red helicopter going full speed towards the water,” Nazarian told WABC. “It almost looked very surreal and next thing we know it’s approaching the water slowly and then it just completely crashed and then sunk.”
The skies over New York constantly buzz with helicopters carrying tourists, businesspeople, traffic reporters, medical teams and others. Crashes are not unheard of.
A crash in October 2011 in the East River killed a British woman visiting the city for her 40th birthday. Three other passengers were injured.
In June 2005, two helicopters crashed into the East River in the same week. One incident injured eight people, including some banking executives. The other crash hit the water shortly after takeoff on a sightseeing flight, injuring six tourists and the pilot.
Fox News’ Edmund DeMarche, Nicole Darrah and The Associated Press contributed to this report.