With Five Killed in Helicopter Crash, Safety Harnesses Became “Death Trap”

After a helicopter crashed into the East River last month and killed five passengers, the victims’ families and politicians are looking for answers to how the tragic accident  occurred. The deadly helicopter crash was part of a photo tour of New York City’s skyline, an increasingly popular tourist activity. Like most other scenic tours of Manhattan, the helicopter had its doors removed. As a consequence, the helicopter’s occupants used a unique safety system involving a snug harness that was tethered to the interior of the chopper. While this prevents the tour’s patrons from falling out of the helicopter mid-flight, it can also create a tragic disaster in the event of a helicopter crash because the harness, in the words of one of the victim’s family, becomes a “death trap.”

According to the New York Times, the helicopter’s engine began to fail near Midtown Manhattan. The pilot said he immediately told all five passengers to return to their seats – all of whom were apparently free to walk around because their harnesses were tethered to the helicopter. According to the pilot, one of the passengers was taking a photograph while dangling off the side of the helicopter, a so-called “shoe selfie”, when the engine lights began to indicate danger. On its website, the helicopter tour company, FlyNYON, advertises “dangling your feet for a #shoeselfie.”

After the passengers returned to their seats, the pilot began to descend into the East River and upon reaching to shut off the helicopter’s fuel, noticed the lever had already been flipped – most likely by the same harness system that allowed the passengers to roam around a door-less helicopter, according to federal investigators. Realizing the engine was not malfunctioning but simply out of gas, the pilot switched the fuel shutoff switch back and successfully restarted the engine. At only 300 feet above the surface of the water, the pilot decided it was too late to avoid crashing into the East River.  As the helicopter quickly capsized in the water, the pilot ejected himself from the seat and swam to the water. The pilot, the only person on the helicopter without the harness, was also the only survivor of the crash.

Now, the families of the five victims are filing lawsuits to hold the helicopter company and the harness manufacturer responsible for their loss.  Not only did the harness accidentally engage the fuel shutoff switch that forced the pilot to perform an emergency landing, the “safety system” then trapped the passengers on the sinking helicopter. According to preliminary information released by the National Transportation Safety Board, the safety harness includes a “small pouch” in the front for passengers to cut themselves free in the event of an emergency. The pilot says he provided this safety information to his passengers at the beginning of the helicopter tour.

Government agencies have been quick to respond. Within hours of the crash, the FAA banned all open-door helicopter rides until further investigation. The National Transportation Safety Board immediately opened an investigation into the deadly crash, though the results will not be released for several months. Mayor de Blasio directed city agencies to look into the crash and whether the helicopter company may have violated any laws.

FlyNYON denied any wrongdoing and said their helicopter rides, including safety harnesses, comply with all government regulations. Amazingly, the company is still offering helicopter rides. According to CBS New York, the price did not even go down.

Contact the wrongful death attorneys at the Law Offices of Thomas L. Gallivan, PLLC should you have any questions.


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