Hoboken: Police boats on Sunday circled the wreckage of a submerged tourist helicopter as investigators resumed their search for debris and missing bodies from the helicopter and a small plane that collided in midair, raining wreckage down on the New Jersey waterfront and into the Hudson River.
Investigators also renewed their search for pictures and video of the accident, which was seen by thousands out enjoying a beautiful summer day.
Nine people — three in the private plane, five Italian tourists and a pilot in the Liberty Tours helicopter — are presumed to have died in Saturday's collision, the city's worst air disaster since a 2001 commercial jet crash in Queens that killed 265 people. Three bodies had been recovered by Saturday afternoon.
National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Debbie Hersman said a nearby helicopter pilot saw the plane approaching the in-flight helicopter and tried to alert his fellow chopper pilot.
"He radioed the accident helicopter and told him, 'One-lima-hotel. You have a fixed-wing behind you.' There was no response from the pilot," Hersman said.
The pilot then saw the plane's right wing clip the helicopter, and both aircraft split apart and fell into the river, she said.
The two aircraft went down just south of the stretch of river where a US Airways jet landed safely seven months ago. But this time, there was no miracle.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the midair crash was "unsurvivable."
NYPD boats on Sunday morning circled buoys about 100 yards from Hoboken's waterfront that marked the wreckage of the helicopter. The plane had not yet been found.
Hersman said the river's strong currents and poor visibility hampered divers' efforts to recover the bodies and wreckage.
She said she did not know if there were black boxes or other recording devices on the two aircraft. Aircraft of their size are not required to have such equipment.
Hersman said investigators were hoping to find photos and video of the accident that could help them determine what happened. A handful of photos have surfaced in the media, including at least one showing the moment of impact.
The accident happened in a busy general aviation corridor over the river where pilots are generally free to pick their own route, as long as they stay under 1,000 feet and don't stray too close to Manhattan's skyscrapers.
The skies over the river are often filled with pleasure craft, buzzing by for a view of the Statue of Liberty.
Saturday's accident recalled another crash involving New York Yankees pitcher Cory Lidle and his flight instructor, who died when their plane hit a skyscraper while flying a popular sightseeing route in 2006.
In January, the river was the scene of a spectacular aircraft landing that resulted in no loss of life after a US Airways flight taking off from LaGuardia Airport, in Queens, slammed into a flock of birds and lost power in both engines. The plane crash-landed in the river, and all 155 people on board were pulled to safety.
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.
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.
The identities of the victims of Saturday's crash were not immediately released. Italian Foreign Ministry spokesman Maurizio Massari confirmed there were Italians aboard the helicopter and said the ministry was working to find out further details through diplomats and authorities in New York.
The plane, a Piper PA-32, was registered to LCA Partnership in Fort Washington, Pa. The address is shared by a real estate company run by Steven Altman, of Ambler, Pa. A woman who answered the telephone Saturday at Altman's home hung up, and police wouldn't let reporters enter a private driveway leading to the home.
A person who answered the phone at a Liberty Tours office said the company would be releasing a statement. The company runs sightseeing excursions around the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island and Manhattan at costs ranging from $130 to about $1,000.
Two years ago, a Liberty helicopter fell 500 feet from the sky during a sightseeing trip. The pilot was credited with safely landing the chopper in the Hudson and helping evacuate her seven passengers.
In 1997, a rotor on one of its sightseeing helicopters clipped a Manhattan building, forcing an emergency landing. No one was hurt.
First Published: Sunday, August 09, 2009, 18:15