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NYC helicopter crash kills woman, injures others (VIDEO)

NYC helicopter crash into the East River killed one passenger and injured three others. Investigators are still trying to determine why the helicopter went down shortly after takeoff from a riverbank heliport.

By Deepti HajelaAssociated Press, Karen ZraickAssociated Press / October 5, 2011

In this frame grab image taken from WCBS-TV, survivors cling to the bottom of a helicopter after it inverted following a crash in the East River in New York, on Tuesday. The New York Police Department says the NYC helicopter crashed into the river after taking off from a nearby heliport.

WCBS-TV/AP

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New York

The man at the helm of a private helicopter that crashed into the East River, killing one passenger and injuring three others, was an experienced commercial pilot who owns a company that manages a local airport. Investigators are still trying to determine why the helicopter went down shortly after takeoff from a riverbank heliport.

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Emergency crews arrived within seconds of Tuesday's crash to find the helicopter upside-down in the murky water with just its skids showing on the surface. The pilot, Paul Dudley, and three passengers were bobbing, and witnesses reported a man diving down, possibly in an attempt to rescue the remaining passenger.

New York Police Department divers pulled Sonia Marra, 40, from the water about 90 minutes after the Bell 206 Jet Ranger went down at around 3:30 p.m. She was pronounced dead at the scene.

Meanwhile, a portrait emerged of the pilot as an expert flier who once landed a plane in a field near Coney Island after its engine failed. Dudley owns Linden Airport Services, the company that manages the Linden, New Jersey, municipal airport under a 20-year contract with the city, Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka said.

Pilot Owen Kanzler, who said he has known Dudley for at least 20 years, said he saw Dudley's helicopter take off from the airport around 3 p.m. Flight conditions were calm, he said, with fair weather clouds above the altitude where Dudley would have been flying.

"As long as I've known Paul, he's owned and flown helicopters," he said.

The passengers were friends of Dudley's family and were visiting New York to celebrate the birthdays of Marra and her stepfather Paul Nicholson, 71. He was on the chopper along with his wife Harriet, 60; and a friend of Marra's, Helen Tamaki, 43. The Nicholsons are British but live in Portugal; Marra and Tamaki, a citizen of New Zealand, lived in Sydney, Australia. The group had planned to do some sightseeing and then go to dinner in Linden, police said.

The pilot's wife, Sunhe Dudley, told The Associated Press that she had spoken to her husband briefly after the crash.

"These were actually very dear friends of ours that were in the helicopter," she said.

Marra had worked at Galluzzo's fruit and vegetable market in the Sydney suburb of Glebe for the past three months, said worker Joe Galluzzo. Marra was thrilled when Tamaki surprised her with the trip to New York as a 40th birthday present, Galluzzo said.

Marra had not seen her family in years, and was planning to meet up with them at the top of the Empire State Building as soon as she and Tamaki arrived in New York, Galluzzo said.

"Loved by the customers, fantastic personality — very bubbly," Galluzzo said of Marra. "She couldn't do enough for us. She was just a great, great person."

Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Dudley apparently reported problems in the helicopter and tried to turn around but instead crashed into the water.

The pilot's lawyer told Newsday that Dudley was "in shock and full of regret for what happened." Robert Hantman said Dudley told him that the helicopter went through a "full maintenance check" by a "reputable mechanic" before the flight.

The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board was on the scene Tuesday, and crews pulled the wreckage from the water about four hours after it went down. The chopper was taken to the police department's Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. The airport in Linden, about 17 miles from the 34th Street heliport, was locked down briefly pending the arrival of Federal Aviation Administration and NTSB investigators.

The crash triggered a massive rescue effort, with a dozen boats and divers going down into the cold, gray water. Police officers doing a counterterrorism drill nearby jumped into the water wearing their uniforms, and without any rescue equipment they pulled the passengers to shore. Fire department rescue paramedics revived Harriet Nicholson and Tamaki, who were in critical condition; Paul Nicholson was stable. All were hospitalized. Dudley swam to shore and was uninjured.

"The pilot did indicate that there was somebody still in the helicopter," Lt. Larry Serras said. "By the time we swam to the helicopter it was completely submerged."

Speaking on the CBS' "The Early Show" Wednesday, Serras said the current "was a lot more difficult than I thought it was going to be."

Because of the limited supply of flotation devices, "We tried to stay together so we wouldn't lose any of the rescuers," added Serras, who appeared on the show with Officer Jason Gregory, one of the divers who brought Marra's body to the surface.

Gregory said that the helicopter was upside down in the sediment. He said he jumped in the water with his partner and "the wreckage was right there and the victim was inside."

The Linden airport is a popular base and refueling stop for helicopters and private planes operating in New York. Charter companies, news helicopter and private pilots use the airport.

In November 2006, Dudley landed a Cessna 172 light plane in a park near Coney Island in Brooklyn after the engine failed. No one was hurt.

Dudley filed a lawsuit against a proposed New Jersey heliport after a 2009 incident in which a small plane collided with a helicopter over the Hudson River, on the other side of Manhattan, killing nine people. A government safety panel found that an air traffic controller who was on a personal phone call had contributed to the accident.

The FAA changed its rules for aircraft flying over New York City's rivers after that collision, saying that pilots must call out their positions on the radio and obey a 161 mph (259 kph) speed limit.

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Associated Press writers Chris Hawley, Colleen Long, Jennifer Peltz, Anita Snow, Cristian Salazar and AP news researcher Barbara Sambriski in New York, Samantha Henry in Linden, New Jersey, and Rod McGuirk and Kristen Gelineau in Australia contributed to this report.

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