Tourist Dies in Chopper Crash

NY Post - October 05, 2011

by JAMIE SCHRAM, LARRY CELONA and BOB FREDERICKS

A sightseeing helicopter carrying foreign tourists in town for a birthday bash suddenly plunged upside-down into the East River just seconds after takeoff yesterday, killing a woman who was trapped inside as it sank in the murky, turbulent waters.

Pilot Paul Dudley, 56, and passenger Paul Nicholson, 72, were spotted screaming for help as they struggled to cling to the skids of the overturned aircraft moments after it spun wildly out of control and crashed just off the East 34th Heliport in 50 feet of water at around 3:20 p.m.

"One was yelling, 'There's three more! There's three more inside!' And then [the helicopter] sank," said Luis Reyes, 23, a dog-walker.

Other witnesses said Nicholson repeatedly tried to dive into the sinking chopper in a frantic bid to rescue those still inside.

NYPD and FDNY divers were in the water within minutes and managed to pull Dudley, a veteran helicopter pilot, Nicholson, his wife, Harriet, 60, and Helen Tamaski 43, to safety.

Nicholson's daughter, Sonia Marra Nicholson, remained trapped inside the chopper as it sank, and was pulled dead from the water about 90 minutes later, said a law-enforcement source.

The family and Tamaski, Sonia's partner, were in town for the doomed woman's 40th birthday.

They were all close friends of the pilot.

Witnesses said the 1978 Bell Ranger 206-B chopper spun in circles as the pilot tried to get back to the pier for an emergency landing.

"I saw the helicopter going toward the ramp, and it seemed to be struggling, and it was leaning forward, too forward," said Christopher Laukans, 32, who was leaving a dentist's office.

"Then it started spinning about three to four times, and then it went in the water."

FDNY diver Robert Lopez said he had to battle strong currents to rescue Dudley, who had floated away from the downed chopper.

"[The pilot] was in shock and said there was still someone in the helicopter," said Lopez.

"I brought him back to the pier. He was about 30 yards out. It was a bit of a struggle, [but] we pulled him in."

Mayor Bloomberg said the Nicholsons are British nationals who live in Portugal, while Sonia and Tamaski lived in Australia.

Dudley was not badly hurt and was questioned at the scene by investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board.

Nicholson was treated and released from NYU Medical Center, while his wife and Tamaski were rushed to Bellevue, where they were in critical condition, one in cardiac arrest.

Dudley, a Long Island resident who runs a municipal airport in Linden, NJ, had an earlier brush with death in 2006, when his single-engine plane faltered over Coney Island. He managed to land safely in a city park then, and walk away unscathed.

But this time, things were horrifically different.

"Apparently, the pilot said he was having trouble [in the air] and he was trying to get back [to shore]. We have no idea if it was mechanical or human error," Bloomberg said.

"We pride ourselves on being the most welcoming city in the world, and we are, and to have a family come here to see and experience the best of our city and end up in a tragic accident like this just breaks your heart.

"All New Yorkers feel for the families."

The mayor called British Prime Minister David Cameron to deliver the sad news and offer his condolences. He noted that the city's rescue effort "was quite amazing."

The pilot's wife, Sunhe Dudley, spoke to her husband briefly after the crash.

"I think that he's OK," she said. "These were actually very dear friends of ours that were in the helicopter."

Timothy McGurr, 26, a photographer from Brooklyn, saw divers rescuing one of the women.

"They had her in a life preserver and were giving her CPR in the water. It didn't seem like she was conscious because her head kept coming in and out of the water," McGurr said.

"Then they pulled her out and put her in a stretcher. I really could not believe what was happening. It looked like the pilot was struggling."

Robert Dress, 36, a teacher who was at the pier with his son watching helicopters take off, said the chopper was in the air for only about 20 seconds.

"It went up 20, 30 feet and peeled over the river, and you could see it was in trouble,'' he said.

"It came down in the river upside-down. It wasn't a graceful thing; it was violent. At first, I thought the pilot would get it up, but it ended in a bad way."

"It sank fast," said Carlos Acevedo, 40, of Puerto Rico, who was nearby with his wife.

"To me, it seemed like seconds,'' he said. "It's like the water sucked it in."

Gerry Deverin, an executive at West Wind Solutions who was about to get on the East River ferry at East 34th Street, said, "I saw the chopper. It was going to land, and it was short of the dock by like 30 yards. It flipped totally upside-down.

"The response was incredible. They were here real quick,'' he said of rescue crews. "Four guys dove in, they pulled somebody out."

For-profit sightseeing helicopters are required to be equipped with life vests, but it's unclear if Dudley's chopper had any aboard or if he'd charged his friends for the ride. None of the victims was wearing a life vest.

Authorities briefly closed the New Jersey airport where the flight originated to check the fuel supply for contamination.

The chopper was pulled from the 68-degree waters at sunset and taken to Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn for further investigation.

After the crash, the river was closed to commercial boating traffic, the US Coast Guard said, and the NYPD diverted northbound traffic on the FDR Drive while the rescue took place.

Additional reporting by Douglas Montero, Lisa Riordan Seville, Joe Mollica and Rebecca Harshbarger