NEW YORK (Reuters) - Federal investigators probing a deadly helicopter crash in New York City's East River have not yet spoken with the pilot who warned of engine failure before the chartered aircraft crashed into the icy water, killing all five passengers.
National Transportation Safety Board officials on Monday said they are also looking into why the floatation devices installed on the helicopter did not stop it from sinking and whether the harnesses used to secure passengers on the sightseeing photography tour contributed to their deaths.
"Shortly before the crash, the pilot radioed ATC, air traffic control, declaring an emergency due to engine failure," Bella Dinh-Zarr, the NTSB board member leading the probe, told reporters near the site where the Eurocopter AS350 chartered by Liberty Helicopters of New Jersey was pulled from the water on Monday.
"We have not yet spoken with him yet. We hope to be able to," Dinh-Zarr said, adding that she was unable to confirm news media reports, citing unnamed law enforcement sources, that the pilot told investigators a passenger's bag may have accidentally activated the helicopter's emergency fuel shutoff switch.
Commercial helicopters typically have the switch in case the engine catches fire, according to Jeremy Conley, a flight instructor at Helicopter Flight Training Inc in Ronkonkoma, New York.
The New York Police Department identified the pilot as Richard Vance, 33.
At least two of the passengers were dead when rescue divers got to the scene, officials said. The other three, who had to be cut from their safety harnesses, were declared dead at the hospital.
Vance freed himself from the wreckage and was later discharged from a hospital.
Police identified the dead as Brian McDaniel, 26; Trevor Cadigan, also 26; Carla Vallejos Blanco, 29; Daniel Thompson, 34; and Tristian Hill, 29. McDaniel and Cadigan were tourists from Texas and Vallejos Blanco was from Argentine. The other two were employees of the helicopter company, the New York Daily News said.
Cadigan shared a video on his Instagram social media account of what appeared to be himself and others smiling and laughing as they took off in the helicopter on Sunday evening.
McDaniel was a firefighter and Cadigan a video journalist, the New York Daily News reported, citing unnamed police officials.
Video of Sunday's crash appeared to show the helicopter's rotors spinning solely on momentum instead of engine power as it crashed, Conley said.
The Federal Aviation Administration has no record of any accidents or incidents involving the helicopter that crashed or Vance, according to Jim Peters, an FAA spokesman.
Liberty Helicopters said in a statement it was "focused on supporting the families affected by this tragic accident," adding that it was cooperating with investigators.
The company has been involved in at least two other crashes, according to news accounts. They included a midair collision with a small plane in August 2009 over the Hudson River that killed nine people and in July 2007 when a helicopter went down in the Hudson with a pilot and seven passengers aboard. All of them survived.
(Reporting by Peter Szekely and Jonathan Allen in New York; Additional reporting by Shannon Stapleton in New York and David Shepardson in Washington; editing by Scott Maloned, Jeffrey Benkoe and Jonathan Oatis)