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Grim hunt after crash

The wreckage of a helicopter that collided Saturday with a small airplane is lifted from the Hudson River on Sunday. Nine people died in the crash. Two bodies remained missing.

Associated Press

The wreckage of a helicopter that collided Saturday with a small airplane is lifted from the Hudson River on Sunday. Nine people died in the crash. Two bodies remained missing.

NEW YORK — Divers pulled a helicopter and four more bodies out of the murky Hudson River on Sunday in their search for victims, wreckage and explanations from a midair collision of a sightseeing helicopter and a small plane that killed nine people.

The dead from Saturday's crash include three fathers and their three teenage sons. The private plane carried a family from Pennsylvania, and the helicopter held five Italian tourists celebrating a couple's 25th wedding anniversary.

The plane approached the helicopter, which had just taken off for a 12-minute tour, from behind and clipped it with a wing, witnesses said. Both aircraft split apart and fell into the river.

Searchers fought swift currents, dealt with visibility as low as one foot, and dodged debris dumped along the river bottom as they brought four more bodies on to boats. Two bodies remained missing Sunday.

The collision happened in the same stretch of the Hudson where a US Airways jet landed safely seven months ago.

Divers suspended their search about 6 p.m. Sunday and will resume this morning, National Transportation Safety Board spokesman Keith Holloway said.

Investigators from the NTSB were reviewing flight data from the Teterboro Airport, where the plane took off a little before noon on Saturday.

The plane was not required to have a flight plan and did not file one, said NTSB Chairman Debbie Hersman.

The investigation into the crash, unlike inquiries into commercial jetliners, is hampered because neither the airplane nor the helicopter were required to carry "black boxes" that record flight data and cockpit talk.

The plane was flying at about 1,100 feet at the time of the crash, Hersman 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.

The control tower at Teterboro handed off responsibility for the plane to the tower in Newark about a minute before the crash and told the pilot to contact Newark controllers, Hersman said. But the Newark officials never heard from the pilot.

A pilot on the ground saw the plane approaching and tried to alert the helicopter. He radioed the doomed helicopter and said, "You have a fixed-wing behind you," but there was no response from the pilot, Hersman said.

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 helicopter company, Liberty Helicopters, released the name of the pilot in the crash: Jeremy Clarke, of Lanoka Harbor, N.J.

The NTSB said the pilot, who was born in 1976 and came to work for Liberty last year, had about 2,700 hours of flight time.

The plane's pilot was 60-year-old Steven Altman, of Ambler, Pa., two law enforcement officials told the Associated Press. Also in the plane were 49-year-old Daniel Altman, of Dresher, Pa.; and his 16-year-old son, Douglas, officials said.

The NTSB has long expressed concern that federal safety oversight of helicopter tours isn't rigorous enough. The Federal Aviation Administration hasn't implemented more than a dozen NTSB recommendations aimed at improving the safety of the tours, called on-demand flight operations.

Steven J. Korotky, a flight instructor, called the uncontrolled Hudson River air traffic corridor a "tunnel," and a tight one at that.

Kenneth Jacobsen, who has been flying privately chartered helicopters in New York since 1982, said that while he considered aviation in the congested skies above the river safe, there could at peak moments be a dozen or so aircraft to contend with.

Dan Rose, a former U.S. Navy pilot, says the electronic warning system in the cockpit of his Cirrus SR-22 squawks its warning — "Traffic, Traffic" — so frequently on weekend flights through the Hudson air route that his head, he said, is "constantly on a swivel."

A report by the U.S. Department of Transportation's inspector general last month found that 109 people died in accidents involving on-demand flights in 2007 and 2008, while no one died in commercial airline accidents.

Information from the Associated Press and New York Times was used in this report.

Grim hunt after crash 08/10/09 [Last modified: Monday, August 10, 2009 12:53am]

    

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