HOBOKEN, New Jersey – Treacherous Hudson River waters forced divers to suspend their search Monday for two remaining bodies and the wreckage of a small plane that collided over the weekend with a sightseeing helicopter, killing nine people.
Divers believe they found parts of the private plane’s wreckage but had to pull out because of strong currents and zero visibility, said NYPD spokesman Paul Browne. Authorities hoped to resume the search later Monday afternoon.
During their brief time just south of where the plane went down, the divers “encountered what they believe were pieces of the plane,” Browne said.
Of the six bodies in the helicopter, divers recovered two on Saturday morning and two more that afternoon. Two were trapped in the wreckage and could be extricated only once it was hoisted on a pier in Hoboken, Browne said.
The seventh body – the teen plane passenger – was found floating Saturday near Pier 40 in Manhattan.
A Pennsylvania family and an Italian tourist group were killed in Saturday’s crash in the busy skies of Manhattan. The helicopter carried a pilot and the five Italian tourists, who have been identified through their fingerprints, said Italian Ambassador Giovanni Castellaneta.
Castellaneta said he had met with the medical examiner in New York as well as relatives of the victims.
“Today the relatives were asking me, ‘How it can be that a holiday in New York can become such a tragedy?”‘ Castellaneta said in Italian. He promised to find out and said, “We intend to keep that promise.”
Castellaneta said he would meet with Mayor Michael Bloomberg and was in contact with officials from the National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration.
A pilot who radioed a desperate, last-minute warning said the plane that struck the helicopter “looked like a cruise missile hitting a target.”
Ben Lane warned fellow helicopter pilot Jeremy Clarke that the plane was bearing down on him.
Lane told the Daily News in Monday’s editions that another pilot heard him say, “Watch out! Watch out!” He said a wing and chopper blades fell before both aircraft plummeted.
Lane said a crash was inevitable along the busy corridor. Helicopter pilots stay in constant radio contact, he said, but many small plane pilots do not.
An Army Corps of Engineers crane lifted the twisted wreckage of the helicopter from 30 feet (9 metres) of water near the New Jersey shore on Sunday. A sonar scanner found the Piper Lancer nearby and more plane parts were found farther away under about 50 feet (15 metres) of water.
Investigators used a crane to reposition the wreckage of the helicopter on a pier about a mile from the site where divers were searching the river on Monday. They placed tarps around the wreckage.
Hersman said on NBC’s “Today” show that investigators will eventually examine the aircrafts’ structural integrity and will try to determine how the initial impact occurred.
Hersman declined to speculate about the cause of the crash. The investigation is expected to take months.
Witnesses said the small plane approached the helicopter, which had just taken off for a 12-minute tour, from behind and clipped it with a wing. Hersman said the helicopter was gaining altitude when the two hit. Both aircraft split and fell into the river, scattering debris and sending weekenders enjoying the beautiful day running for cover.
The plane took off from Teterboro Airport in New Jersey shortly before noon. Hersman said it was not required to have a flight plan and did not file one. The plane was flying at about 1,100 feet (335 metres), she said. Below that altitude, planes in that part of the Hudson River corridor are to navigate visually. Above that, they need clearance from air traffic controllers.
One of the Italian victims was a husband celebrating his 25th wedding anniversary, a family friend said. His wife had stayed behind because she was afraid of flying, but their 16-year-old son was in the helicopter.
The five tourists were from the Bologna, Italy, area: Michele Norelli, 51; his son Filippo Norelli, 16; Fabio Gallazzi, 49; his wife, Tiziana Pedroni, 44; and their son Giacomo Gallazzi, 15.
The trip was a gift from Norelli’s sister, family friend Giovanni Leporati said. “The anniversary already happened but they took advantage of the August holidays and went,” Leporati told The Associated Press by phone.
The helicopter company, Liberty Helicopters, released the name of the pilot in the crash: Jeremy Clarke of Lanoka Harbor, New Jersey. The NTSB said the pilot, originally from New Zealand, was born in 1976 and came to work for Liberty last year. He had about 2,700 hours of flight time.
“He was a very responsible, very safe pilot,” said his former mother-in-law, Betty Mallory. “I wouldn’t have had any hesitation flying with him.”
The plane’s pilot was identified as 60-year-old Steven Altman. The passengers were his 49-year-old brother, Daniel Altman, and Daniel’s 16-year-old son, Douglas, officials said. The Altman brothers worked in real estate and lived in Pennsylvania.
Associated Press writers contributing to this report include: Deepti Hajela, Tom Hays, Suzanne Ma, Maria Sanminiatelli and Amy Westfeldt in New York City, Beth DeFalco in Trenton, N.J., JoAnn Loviglio in Blue Bell, Pa., Colleen Long in Chicago, Ariel David in Rome, and AP News researcher Julie Reed.