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Pilot says passenger gear may have interfered with helicopter operation: Officials

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    A helicopter crash Sunday night in the East River of New York City that killed five people may have been caused by a passenger’s harness, the pilot told investigators, ABC News has learned.

    Preliminary information from an interview with Richard Vance, the pilot of the red Eurocopter AS350, suggests a passenger’s harness somehow got wrapped around the fuel shut-off switch, accidentally cutting off the fuel supply to the helicopter and resulting in engine failure, multiple officials briefed on the investigation told ABC News.

    Vance, 33, a pilot for Liberty Helicopter tours, radioed “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” just before 7 p.m. Sunday and reported “engine failure” just before the helicopter went down in the East River between East 86th and East 96th streets near Manhattan’s Upper East Side.

    A 16-member “Go Team” from the National Transportation Safety Board was headed to the scene this morning to investigate the cause of the crash. The Federal Aviation Administration was assisting in the investigation.

    In a statement released today, Liberty Helicopters said, “We are focused on supporting the families affected by this tragic accident and on fully cooperating with the FAA and the NTSB investigations. These agencies have asked us to respect the investigative process by referring all press inquiries to them for any further comment.”

    Vance, 33, was the only one to survive the crash in the frigid waters of the East River.

    In two interviews with New York City police investigators, Vance said that when he first noticed he was having engine problems, he thought about landing in Central Park, but ruled that out and headed toward the East River, two officials briefed on the investigation told ABC News.

    Vance told investigators he couldn’t figure out what was wrong with the aircraft until he saw a tether from one of the passenger’s harnesses strangling the fuel line, the officials said. By then, Vance had lost all power and prepared for a crash water landing.

    He told investigators he attempted to inflate the emergency pontoons on the helicopter’s skids prior to hitting the water, but the pontoons, which would have kept the aircraft afloat, did not inflate and the helicopter listed to one side and flipped over shortly after impact, officials said.

    Officials said the passengers chartered the helicopter for a photo shoot and were tightly harnessed because the doors were left open so they could get better pictures.

    Due to the doors being open, the helicopter quickly filled up with water and began to sink, officials said.

    While Vance was able to immediately free himself from his harness, the passengers remained buckled in and trapped in the helicopter, which flipped over and submerged.

    The helicopter drifted all the way down to E. 59th Street, where rescuers were finally able to reach it and free the trapped passengers by cutting their harnesses, according to FDNY Commissioner Daniel Nigro.

    ABC News’ Mark Crudele contributed to this report.

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