A video transcript released by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) depicts the last minutes of the passengers of a doors-off New York sightseeing helicopter that crashed last year.
“How do I cut this,” one passenger asked while attempting to reach for a hook knife to cut himself free from the harnesses.
The helicopter was engulfed in water 13 seconds later, and the passenger doesn’t appear to have successfully grabbed the knife before the camera goes to dark, according to the transcript.
Other passengers can be heard cursing and panting and seen grasping at their harness straps as water sloshed around them.
While the NTSB footage was not released, the details come from a transcript of video from a GoPro camera mounted on the ceiling of the helicopter’s cabin. All five passengers drowned in the incident. Emergency officials found them strapped into their seats and had to cut them loose to recover the bodies.
The helicopter, a Eurocopter AS350, was in the air for nearly 15 minutes before it glided into the East River near Roosevelt Island on the evening of March 11, 2018, NTSB documents show.
The pilot, Richard Vance, was able to unbuckle his seat belt and was the only survivor.
In an audio recording of a mayday call to LaGuardia Airport, the pilot said the helicopter was experiencing engine failure.
The pilot later described the final minutes to investigators in interviews published by the NTSB.
Vance told investigators he realized the fuel lever caused an engine failure when he reached for the emergency fuel lever to prepare for impact. He said he “could tell something was wrong because it was in the up position where I should have been putting it.”
He “slammed it down” and tried the starter as the helicopter neared the East River, but “it wasn’t spooling up fast enough” so he “rode it in.”
The impact was “not a giant jolt,” Vance said, but as the front skids impacted the surface, water quickly covered the floor, according to the report.
The pilot said the front passenger, who was tall, caught the lever with his harness link when he leaned forward — the slack got caught and raised the handle. The seat belts were “kept loose to provide freedom of movement. When he leaned back there was a lot of excess links,” Vance said.
The last thing Vance said he heard from the radio was LaGuardia Air Traffic Control asking whether he needed assistance.
Then, while “fully under water,” Vance said he unbuckled his seat belt and swam to the surface as the helicopter rolled on top of him.
Vance told authorities that although he wanted to go back to rescue the passengers, he didn’t because he was worried his wet winter clothes would weigh him down, the report says.
The video transcript also describes the helicopter flotation system, which is meant to steady the helicopter in an upright position in the event of a water landing. The floats showed visible wrinkles as the system began to inflate around the base of the helicopter.
When emergency workers responded, the helicopter was upside down and submerged, authorities said. Police called for a barge with a crane to pull the chopper out of the water near 23rd Street.
The five victims were Carla Vallejos Blanco, 29; Daniel Thompson, 34; Tristan Hill, 29; Trevor Cadigan, 26; and Brian McDaniel, 26.
Vallejos Blanco, a tourist from Argentina, was on vacation taking a photographic tour of the city when she was killed, according to Deputy Consul General Eduardo Almirantearena.
Cadigan was an intern at the media organization Business Insider until a few weeks before the crash, according to a company spokesman. Cadigan was the son of Jerry Cadigan, the production manager for WFAA-TV in Dallas, and had interned at the station.
Thompson was a member of the Young New Yorkers’ Chorus and served as president of the non-profit starting in 2016.
McDaniel was a fire rescue officer for Dallas Fire-Rescue, the department said in a statement.
Hill was a basketball operations assistant for the Westchester Knicks, a minor league basketball team.
The flight was operated by Liberty Helicopters for the tour company FlyNYON and was supposed to be a 30-minute trip. The helicopter took off from a heliport in Kearny, New Jersey, according to the NTSB.
The FAA issued a nationwide order suspending “doors-off” helicopter flights involving “restraints that cannot be released quickly in an emergency” after the incident.
New York City also banned the flights, but the ban doesn’t affect companies such as FlyNYON that take off from New Jersey. FlyNYON is still in operation, advertising daily off-door excursions on its website.