A civilian Eurocopter AS350 helicopter carrying six people went down in the East River in New York City on Sunday night. Only the pilot survived.

The helicopter belonged to Liberty Helicopters, a company based in New York City that specializes in aerial tours and contracting for photography. According to a press statement, the five passengers that died on Sunday night were a part of a privately chartered flight for a photography project.

According to a report by the Federal Aviation Administration, the crash took place just after 7 p.m. local time. The pilot, 33-year-old Richard Vance, called out over the radio that the helicopter was experiencing engine failure just before it went down into the river. Although the pilot appeared to manage the landing fairly well, the helicopter soon toppled over and capsized, leaving the pilot and five passengers secured to their seats and submerged under water.

The pilot was able to cut himself free from his seat-restraints and make it to the surface to be rescued. None of the passengers, however, were so lucky.

One of the most difficult parts of the rescue were that five people were tightly harnessed,” Fire Department of New York Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. “People had to be cut out.”

Liberty Helicopters describes itself on its website as “the largest and most experienced helicopter sightseeing and charter service in New York City,” and boasts “a fleet of 10 state-of-the-art Airbus helicopters (formerly American Eurocopter).” Reviews of the business online have, by and large, been positive, but following the tragic death of five passengers that likely survived the crash, only to perish due to their restraints, some have raised questions about the business’s safety record.

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“We have been in business and flying safely for over 30 years,” the website says, though it makes no mention two previous crashes in just over ten years. In August of 2009, investigators faulted a Liberty Helicopter pilot for a head on collision with a private plane over the Hudson River. The FAA determined that the helicopter, with nine passengers on board, should have been maintaining a lower altitude to avoid the crash.

Two years prior, another incident over the Hudson saw a Liberty Helicopter with eight people on board plunge into the river. One of those passengers happened to be an off-duty paramedic, who was credited with helping to get everyone off of the helicopter safely.

The pilot in Sunday’s incident, Richard Vance, was the only person of the six on board to survive the water landing, prompting some backlash on social media. The pilot’s brother, Anthony Vance, however, credited his brother’s piloting skills and had some harsh words for those who would paint the pilot has the villain.

He did his job and got out alive.” Anthony Vance told reporters. “He’s a true f—ing pilot, so just let him be.”

An investigation is already underway to determine the cause of the crash, though preliminary reports, including a statement provided by the pilot himself, seem to suggest that one of the passengers may have actually caused the crash by accidentally hitting the emergency fuel shut off button with one of their bags.

Other questions have been raised about the helicopter itself, which should have been equipped with floats when operating around water. Based on footage of the crash that has been posted to social media, no floats engaged when the helicopter hit the water, suggesting that it either was not equipped with them, or they failed to activate, causing the helicopter to tip over, ultimately drowning the passengers trapped inside.

We are focused on supporting the families affected by this tragic accident and on fully cooperating with the FAA and NTSB investigations.” Liberty Helicopters said in a statement on their website. “These agencies have asked us to respect the investigative process by referring all press inquiries to them for any further comment.”

You can see footage of the helicopter landing in the water below:


Image courtesy of Twitter