NEW YORK — With the current in the East River between Manhattan and Queens running south at about 3 knots and the downed helicopter lashed to a tugboat, rescue divers Sunday night had only one option.
They told the tugboat captain to cut the propellers and resigned themselves to drifting with the current as they tried to cut five passengers out of the helicopter, their bodies underwater and cinched with harnesses heavy enough to let them lean over and snap photographs of the New York City skyline.
By the time the divers plucked them out, it was too late. The five passengers — four men and a woman — all died. The crash revived calls for helicopter tours to be restricted over Manhattan and raised questions about the safety of amateurs being allowed on so-called photo flights, in which people are strapped in to helicopters with their doors off and given only knives to escape in an emergency.
The pilot, Richard Vance, 33,climbed out quickly and survived. New York City police and firefighter divers appeared to free the female passenger soon after submerging, but it may have taken until the helicopter drifted from 86th Street to a pier at 34th Street for the divers to free the rest of the passengers, a law enforcement official said.
The helicopter, owned by Liberty Helicopters and flown by FlyNYON, a company that specializes in doors-off helicopter photo tours, had just taken off from New Jersey when it encountered trouble, the official said.
The pilot made a desperate "mayday" call, in which he said there was "engine failure."
"He pointed away from the city and toward the river," the official said. "He didn't want to go down in Manhattan, so he went toward the river, because it seemed like the best option for a landing."
Once it splashed into the East River, the helicopter flipped over and began sinking.
The official said it was not clear exactly when yellow inflatable pontoons on the helicopter began inflating and why they did not keep the helicopter afloat.
The tugboat, the Foxy 3, was returning to its base on Staten Island when the men aboard apparently heard the mayday call, the official said. They helped rescue the captain and tied off the helicopter to keep it from sinking 50 feet to the bottom of the river.
Law enforcement officials lauded the men aboard the tug for their quick response.
A passenger on another FlyNYON helicopter tour taking place at the same time as the crash said on Twitter on Sunday night that he had been with the victims during a safety briefing and as they boarded.
He said passengers were strapped in from the rear, making it difficult to wriggle out of the harnesses.
"They provide knives to slice harnesses but didn't physically point out where they were once we had them on," he said on Twitter. "We had flotation devices too."
Liberty Helicopter and FlyNYON did not respond to requests for comment Monday morning.
The first 911 call came in at 7:07 p.m., as startled onlookers along the East River promenade and in their apartments watched the helicopter descend.
Within a minute the call was routed to an ambulance, the law enforcement official said, and soon Fire Department and Police Department sea rescue experts were working to respond.
By 7:11 p.m., a 911 caller reported seeing the Police Department's harbor unit on the scene, and five minutes later the harbor unit came on the police radio and said it had arrived.
A helicopter with divers and a second harbor unit boat were also at the scene by 7:16 p.m., the official said.
They could not dive in with the tugboat's propellers still whirring, so the tugboat shut down its motor and, with the helicopter attached and the divers going under, began floating south.
The National Transportation Safety Board said Monday that 14 of its employees were en route to investigate the crash.
The police have not yet officially identified the victims.