NY Post - March 13, 2018by Yaron Steinbuch, Larry Celona and Bruce Golding
They were strapped in for safety — and it led to their doom.
The five passengers who died when their sightseeing helicopter crashed into the East River Sunday got trapped inside by the very same harnesses that kept them from falling out of the helicopter when it was in the air, the FDNY said yesterday.
All of the victims were upside down and wearing tight-fitting safety harnesses when rescue divers found them trapped dozens of feet underwater inside the capsized chopper, FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.
“It took a while for the divers to get these people out. They worked very quickly, as fast as they could,” Nigro said.
“It was a great tragedy that we had here.”
A law enforcement source noted the bitter irony that “the harness, which was supposed to keep them strapped in while they’re taking pictures, also kept them locked in while they were underwater.”
“It did too good a job. They couldn’t free themselves,” the source said. The victims were wearing the harnesses for an aerial-photography tour with FlyNYON, which charges up to $279 for a 15-minute, “doors-off” flight around Lower Manhattan — and promotes itself with online images of gleeful passengers dangling their legs out of its choppers.
“Using our proprietary 8 Point Safety Harness System (SHS), we go beyond industry safety standards for each person on each and every flight,” the company boasts.
“Our customer experience professionals outfit passengers with safety equipment according to our SHS guidelines. The Pilot in Command then performs a final review before takeoff.”
A photo shot by aerial photographer Eric Adams, of Allentown, Pa., shows the doomed chopper, with its doors open, passing by the Statue of Liberty shortly before it dropped into the river at 7:08 p.m. Sunday.
Adams, 48, embarked on a similar FlyNYON flight around Manhattan that took off around the same time, and he was given the same video briefing as the five tourists who perished.
“It was a video that showed, among other things, how the harness works and the fact that there was a knife attached that you could use to cut yourself from the tether,” Adams said.
He said that the knife was specially designed with its blade recessed in a plastic hook, like a scissor handle, but that crew members didn’t highlight it while loading passengers into the chopper.
“I didn’t see the knife on my harness. They didn’t make an effort to point it out,” he said.
“They said that in an emergency, you can unhook the harness. But it’s next to impossible because it’s in the middle of your back.
“You’d have to be able to reach behind your back, find the carabiner, unscrew it, take it off and also undo your seatbelt,” he added.
Photographer and former New York City resident Jonathan Ducrest told The Post he’s taken four FlyNYON flights, most recently during a visit to the Big Apple on Nov. 21.
Ducrest, who now lives in Los Angeles, said he’s also taken two flights over LA and one out of Las Vegas over the Grand Canyon.
“In general, I’ve been happy with how they’ve handled their safety, but it’s tight back there,” he said of the cabin.
“So if everyone is panicking and trying to turn around, to be able to even get to the [carabiner] — I can only imagine it would be a really hard situation to get yourself out of it.
“It’s probably something hard to do in normal circumstances, now if you’re underwater and you can’t see and its cold and you may be tilting one way or another, I don’t know how you could do it,” he added.
A law enforcement source said helicopter pilot Richard Vance, who escaped the wreck and was rescued by a tugboat, told cops the chopper capsized because emergency flotation devices only deployed on one side of the aircraft.
Photos of the helicopter being pulled from the water Monday showed six yellow, inflatable floats — three on each side — either fully or partly inflated.
National Transportation Safety Board Vice Chairman Bella Dinh-Zarr said helicopter floats can be triggered manually by the pilot or automatically when they hit water, depending on the model.
“What we’re going to look at is how they inflated, if there were any problems with them,” she told reporters during an afternoon news conference at Manhattan’s East 23rd Street pier.
“When floats do inflate there are times when the helicopter will still necessarily not stay afloat.”
Dinh-Zarr said investigators “will be looking at this helicopter to see whether the harnesses were functioning and whether the passengers were using them.”
Lead NTSB investigator Todd Gunter said “survival-factor specialists that are trained in the examination and analysis of restraint systems” would be among the probers.
Dinh-Zarr also said that “it was legal to have the doors open” during the flight.
FlyNYON said in a statement: “NY on Air is terribly saddened to learn that its customers were passengers on the Liberty Helicopters flight that went down in the East River last night,” noting it was “fully cooperating” with federal investigators.
In a statement posted on its website, Liberty said: “We are focused on supporting the families affected by this tragic accident and on fully cooperating with the FAA and NTSB investigations.
“These agencies have asked us to respect the investigative process by referring all press inquiries to them for any further comment.”
Additional reporting by Chris Perez