Helicopter ditches into Hudson River

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NEW YORK (AP) – A helicopter on a sightseeing tour of Manhattan made an emergency landing in the Hudson River Saturday afternoon, leaving all eight people aboard drenched but not seriously harmed, authorities said.

The seven passengers and a pilot were pulled from the waters between Manhattan and New Jersey by two Good Samaritan vessels as smoke poured from the bobbing aircraft.

Passengers said it appeared the helicopter had engine trouble before it went down. The pilot deployed yellow emergency floats and made a controlled landing, authorities said. The propellers were askew, but the aircraft, which was owned by Liberty Helicopters, did not seem to be badly damaged, according to Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Holly Baker.

Among the passengers to emerge unscathed was New York Fire Department emergency medical technician Jose Mejia, 21, who was on the tour with his girlfriend Zaira Machado.

Mejia helped Machado and the others exit the aircraft. All eight people aboard donned life jackets and were in the water for less than five minutes before rescuers arrived, said Fire Department spokesman Craig Mosia.

Mejia said he was terrified when he realized something was wrong with the helicopter.

“I thought I was going to die, that was definitely my initial reaction,” Mejia told reporters. “When I heard the engine and I heard the propellers, my girlfriend looked back at me and I just saw her screaming and I thought I was going to die.”

As the eight were pulled to safety, a passenger ferry crammed with onlookers hovered nearby.

“It was really scary because I don’t know how to swim and I just jumped into the water without having my life vest inflated,” Machado said.

Mejia said the tour was a gift from Machado for their four-year anniversary. “She did this as a surprise. Well, surprise,” he joked.

The rescuers passed the eight to U.S. Coast Guard officials, who returned them to shore for evaluation by medical personnel, Mosia said. The Coast Guard said there were no serious injuries.

The FAA planned to investigate the crash, which was being classified as an incident rather than an accident, Baker said.

Liberty Helicopters, which runs sightseeing excursions around the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and Manhattan, said it had no comment. For most tours, Liberty passengers pay between $30 and $186 per person for rides lasting from two to 17 minutes. Officials said the craft had not been privately contracted.

Baker said the helicopter, a Eurocopter EC-135, took off from the VIP Heliport on West 30th Street at about 4:50 p.m. Witnesses reported seeing a black helicopter go straight down into the water about 50 yards north of the Lincoln Tunnel.

Mejia praised the pilot, who was not identified, saying she acted like a professional during the landing.

“She stayed calm throughout the whole incident, told us exactly what to do,” he said.

Red rescue rafts motored through the water from Manhattan to reach the scene and some pleasure boats in the area made U-turns and headed down river to avoid the area.

By evening, the helicopter – still afloat on its pontoons – was secured to a New Jersey pier, the Coast Guard said.

AP-ES-07-07-07 2227EDT

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