NEW YORK — The pilot who survived a helicopter crash that killed his five passengers told authorities he believed a passenger’s bag might have hit an emergency fuel shutoff switch in the moments before the chopper went down, a federal official told The Associated Press on Monday.
The official was briefed on the investigation but not authorized to speak publicly about it and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The National Transportation Safety Board later said it would look at the switch, the chopper’s flotation devices and even the photos on passengers’ cameras to figure out what caused the crash Sunday in New York City’s East River.
NTSB member Bella Dinh-Zarr said the agency hasn’t spoken yet to the pilot but hopes to do so.
“Mayday, mayday, mayday,” pilot Richard Vance said in an emergency radio call as the Eurocopter AS350 tour helicopter foundered Sunday night. “East River — engine failure.”
Video taken by a bystander and posted on Twitter shows the red helicopter land hard in the water and then capsize, its rotors slapping at the water.
The chopper flipped over and quickly sank, killing a Texas firefighter, an Argentine woman, a young video journalist, a former basketball team assistant and another person on what authorities said was a charter flight to take photos.
The copter’s six emergency floats did inflate, but Dinh-Zarr said investigators would look at whether there were any problems with the devices. The NTSB and other agencies involved in the probe also hope to recover the passengers’ cameras and electronics “to capture a digital portrait of the last moments of this flight,” she said.
No one answered an email Monday to Vance, 33, a licensed commercial pilot for seven years who’s also licensed as a flight instructor. A possible phone number for him in Danbury, Connecticut, wasn’t working.
A floating crane slowly raised the submerged helicopter to the surface Monday and towed it off to be examined, as Democratic New York Sen. Chuck Schumer said federal regulators should suspend flights by the helicopter’s owner until the facts of the crash are known.
The owner, Liberty Helicopters, referred all inquiries to federal authorities. The Federal Aviation Administration said it was investigating whether the company had been complying with regulations.
A tour and charter helicopter company, Liberty has been involved in at least five accidents or other incidents in the last 10 years, according to FAA data. “Incidents” can include events that end in safe landings, but an August 2009 collision over the Hudson River between a Liberty chopper and a small, private plane killed nine people, including a group of Italian tourists.
The company paid $23,576 in fines in 2010 and 2011 for violating maintenance, record-keeping and flight operations rules, according to the FAA. Three subsequent maintenance violations in 2011 and 2012 didn’t result in any fines.
Witnesses to Sunday’s crash said the helicopter was flying noisily, then suddenly dropped and quickly submerged.
Emergency divers had to get the passengers out of tight safety harnesses while they were upside down, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said. Vance was able to free himself.
The passengers who died included Dallas Fire-Rescue Officer Brian McDaniel, 26, and his high school friend Trevor Cadigan, 26, a journalist who hailed from Dallas but had recently moved to New York.
McDaniel had been with the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department since May 2016.
“He decided he wanted to help people” and set out to do it, said Cole Collins, a childhood friend from Dallas. “He didn’t care about being a flashy person or making a lot of money. He loved his family and friends and this city.”
McDaniel was visiting Cadigan, who had recently finished an internship at the Business Insider news site.
“He was a smart, talented, and ambitious young journalist and producer who was well-liked and made a big contribution,” Business Insider said in a statement.
A 2016 graduate of Southern Methodist University, Cadigan had previously freelanced with an entertainment and culture site managed by the Dallas Morning News and interned with his hometown’s WFAA-TV. His father, Jerry, is the station’s production manager.
Carla Vallejos Blanco, 29, was a tourist from Corrientes, Argentina, who’d been in New York for a few days, said her country’s consul in New York, Mateo Estreme.
Tristan Hill, 29 and engaged to be married, was most recently working at a sightseeing tour company but had previously been a basketball operations assistant with the Westchester Knicks, a Development League affiliate of the New York Knicks.
He “brightened every room he entered, with a contagious smile and an unparalleled enthusiasm for life,” the team said in a statement.
The fifth victim was Daniel Thompson, 34, according to police.