Trevor Cadigan was smiling and laughing as the helicopter ascended. His friend, Brian McDaniel, was sitting behind him, flashing a thumbs-up.
Cadigan had just moved to New York, and McDaniel, his friend from back home in Dallas, was visiting. They had spent the weekend sightseeing, and on Sunday evening boarded a helicopter to capture views of the city from above.
The 35-second Instagram video Cadigan posted at around 7 p.m. captured some of the last moments of their lives. The red helicopter they were riding in had just flown over the Statue of Liberty and the Brooklyn Bridge when it plunged into the frigid waters of the East River near Roosevelt Island, between Manhattan and Queens.
The pilot survived, but Cadigan, McDaniel and the three other passengers onboard died.
The flight lasted just 11 minutes, according to flightradar24.com, a flight-tracking website. Videos captured by witnesses showed the helicopter descending quickly, capsizing and tilting onto its side, its rotor blades still spinning in the water.
The pilot managed to free himself and call out for help from a flotation device, witnesses told reporters at the scene. A fire boat took the pilot to shore, where an ambulance took him to a hospital, New York City Fire Department Commissioner Daniel A. Nigro said at a Sunday-night news conference, adding that the pilot is “okay.”
Rescue teams worked in below-40-degree temperatures and 50-foot-deep water with 4-mph currents to remove the passengers from the helicopter, Nigro said. The passengers were all “tightly harnessed,” so emergency fire and police responders had to cut the harnesses.
“It took a while for the divers to get these people out,” he said. “They worked very quickly, as fast as they could.”
“It’s a great tragedy that we had occur here on an otherwise quiet Sunday evening,” Nigro added.
Two of the passengers were pronounced dead in the initial hours after the crash; three others died later at a hospital.
The others killed were 34-year-old Daniel Thompson and 29-year-old Tristan Hill, both from New York, and a 29-year-old Argentine, Carla Vallejos Blanco.
Officials have not said what caused the crash. The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board are investigating. Officials with the NTSB told reporters on Monday afternoon that investigators have not talked to the pilot, who remains hospitalized. It also remains unclear whether the harnesses were functioning properly, or if the helicopter experienced mechanical problems after takeoff.
The helicopter, a Eurocopter AS350, was a private charter commissioned for a photo shoot, said James P. O’Neill, commissioner of the New York City Police Department. It is owned by Liberty Helicopters, a New Jersey-based company that claims to be the “largest and most experienced helicopter sightseeing and charter service in the Northeast,” according to its website. Providing sightseeing trips since 1990, the company advertises “unparalleled safety records.”
A representative for Liberty Helicopters was not available for comment, but the company told Fox News in a statement that it is cooperating with federal investigators. FlyNYON, a New Jersey company that runs the tours, was also unreachable Monday.
Witness Celia Skvaril told local media that the helicopter hit the water and flipped over. She then saw a man float down the river on a raft, but did not see anyone else emerge from the water.
“It was a pretty hard hit and then it flipped over,” Skvaril, 23, told the New York Daily News. “We didn’t see the helicopter anymore and then a yellow raft popped up and again we didn’t see or hear anyone until we saw a person on top of the raft screaming and yelling for help and waving.”
Video footage on Twitter shows a man wrapped in a white blanket walking alongside emergency responders on East End Avenue, near the Upper East Side, after the crash. Other videos show emergency responders performing CPR on a victim on a stretcher being loaded onto an ambulance.
The helicopter was one of three that took off from a helipad in New Jersey early Sunday evening for a flying tour of New York City, said Eric Adams, an aviation writer who was a passenger in a different helicopter. The flights cater to tourists and to amateur and professional photographers, like Adams, who want to take aerial pictures of the city.
He said all the passengers boarding the three helicopters had attended a safety briefing, which included a 10-minute video, and were transported by bus to the terminal, where they were asked to leave their belongings. Before the flights took off and as he was getting his camera gear ready, Adams said he talked to two young men whom he believes were among the victims.
“They were both very excited about the flight; they were trying to figure out the best selfies for their cameras,” Adams said. “When I got to the terminal, one of the guys … he asked about going on the flight, if I’d done this before. Just figuring out what to expect.”
The helicopters took off within about 30 seconds of each other, Adams said, and the aircraft carrying the victims was the last one to leave.
Minutes into the half-hour trip — and not long after flying over the Statue of Liberty — Adams, who was sitting in the front seat, heard his pilot talking to an air traffic controller.
“He was being instructed [to] look for the other helicopter because there was a mayday,” Adams said. “The helicopter apparently went down.”
A FDNY rescue diver is hosed off with fresh water after pulling victims from a submerged helicopter after it crashed into the East River in New York, March 11, 2018. (REUTERS/Darren Ornitz)
After Adams and the others landed back at the terminal in New Jersey, his pilot told him that the other helicopter had crashed in the East River. He said the pilot had initially thought that the passengers survived.
Back in the terminal’s locker room to retrieve his belongings, Adams saw the bags of the young men he had talked to earlier that evening.
“That’s when it kind of really dawned: That helicopter isn’t coming back,” Adams said.
Questions were raised Monday about whether the pilot could have saved, or tried to save, his passengers. Because the helicopter was flown with the doors off, passengers wore harnesses that went over their shoulders and between their legs, Adams said. On their back, between their shoulder blades, was a metal ring attached to a carabiner and tethered to the floor.
“You’re in there, you’re anchored,” Adams said. “You can lean out as far as you want, and you’re not going to fall out of the helicopter. But you’re also belted in.”
He added: “There’s no way those people could’ve gotten out of the helicopter. Not with the training they had. Not even me, and this is my third time … When you’re anchored at your shoulder blade, you can’t reach that.”
Travis Howard, a St. Louis resident, told The Post that his family was panicking Sunday night because they had not heard from his brother-in-law, Cadigan.
At about midnight, Howard had tried contacting police and three hospitals and had not determined whether Cadigan was among those who died. The man’s immediate family members had not been able to reach him all night, and had not heard anything from him since he posted his Instagram story. Howard did not know whether the helicopter trip was in any way related to his work as a video journalist.
“It’s just tough not being able to speak to anyone or not having any information,” Howard said. “It’s very much so a panic.”
Shortly after 2 a.m., Howard received a call back from police telling him that Cadigan was among the deceased.
McDaniel, Cadigan’s friend who died with him on the helicopter, was a firefighter for the Dallas Fire-Rescue Department, NBC affiliate KXAS reported. The two attended the same high school.
The Argentine passenger, Vallejos Blanco, was visiting New York from Correintes, in the northern part of Argentina. She was supposed to meet a friend at Rockefeller Center on Sunday night, but she never showed up, said Eduardo Almirantearena, deputy consul general at the Consulate General of Argentina in New York City.
Almirantearena said the agency has been in contact with Vallejos Blanco’s family in Argentina.
A number of plane and helicopter crashes over New York City’s East River and Hudson River have claimed lives in the past several years. At least three incidents over the past decade, including the crash Sunday, involved Liberty Helicopters.
In 2007, a Liberty Helicopters aircraft carrying eight people crashed into the Hudson River; all passengers survived. Two years later, a helicopter also owned by the company collided with a small private plane over the Hudson River, sending both aircraft plunging into the water and killing nine people.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) during an event Monday urged the Federal Aviation Administration to suspend Liberty Helicopters’ operating certificate until the company’s safety record is examined and the most recent crash investigated.
“Three is too many, there are too many allegations, no one knows what happened,” Schumer said, according to a transcript provided by his office. “I don’t think Liberty should be flying until we get to the bottom of this.”
Another crash that happened in 2011 in the East River left three people dead. Two others survived. And in 2009, Capt. “Sully” Sullenberger glided his US Airways Charlotte-bound plane to safety in the icy waters of the Hudson River, expertly evacuating passengers and crew members. All 155 people on board survived the episode, which was depicted in the 2016 movie “Sully,” starring Tom Hanks.
This post has been updated.
More from Morning Mix: