Dallas firefighter, SMU graduate killed in New York City helicopter crash

A Dallas firefighter and an SMU journalism graduate were among the five people killed when a helicopter went down in Manhattan's East River on Sunday night.

Brian McDaniel was a firefighter at Station 36. Trevor Cadigan was a video journalist who graduated from SMU and worked in New York. The two met at Bishop Lynch High School and had been friends ever since.

A pilot who survived when his helicopter went down in New York City's East River, killing five passengers, said in an emergency radio transmission that the aircraft's engine had failed. 

"Mayday, mayday, mayday," the pilot is heard saying during the crash Sunday night. "East River -- engine failure."

The pilot freed himself and was rescued by a tugboat, but emergency divers had to remove the passengers on the charter helicopter being used for a photo shoot from tight safety harnesses while they were upside down, Fire Commissioner Daniel Nigro said.

"It took a while for the divers to get these people out. They worked very quickly, as fast as they could," Nigro said. "It was a great tragedy that we had here."

The National Transportation Safety Board dispatched investigators on Monday.

McDaniel, 26, had worked for Dallas Fire-Rescue for nearly two years and worked at Station 36. McDaniel was single with no children and is survived by his parents and an older brother.

"Hearts are heavy with grief as we not only try to come to grips with his loss departmentally; but to also be there in every way that we can for his family," said Jason Evans, Dallas Fire-Rescue.

Andrew Vidales was McDaniel's cycling coach at Bishop Lynch. He says McDaniel was also a stand out football player. Vidales attended McDaniel's graduation from the Dallas Fire Rescue Academy.

“He became a firefighter. He was actually studying to be a paramedic with the Dallas Fire Department,” Vidales said. “So it was truly a joyful moment."

Joseph Masinter says McDaniel was his best friend from their middle school days at  The Shelton School. He says he was an adventurous protector, the ideal Dallas firefighter.

"He loved nothing more than the City of Dallas,” Masinter said. “Once he became that firefighter, you were able to see like, wow. That's what this kid is capable of."

Cadigan, 26, worked for Business Insider in New York after attending SMU and majoring in journalism. He freelanced for The Dallas Morning News and also interned at WFAA-TV (Channel 8), where his father works.

"The entire WFAA family is heartbroken by the sudden and tragic loss of Trevor Cadigan. We would like to thank the many friends and former employees of WFAA who have reached out to offer your condolences and support," said Brad Ramsey, WFAA President and General Manager.

Michelle Longoria taught Trevor Cadigan journalism in his sophomore year at Bishop Lynch. She says Cadigan wanted to be an international journalist.

"Trevor was an amazing young man. He was incredibly charismatic,” she said. “If you say Trevor Cadigan, the first thing they're going to do is laugh and then giggle."

SMU Journalism Professor Tony Peterson says Cadigan was a standout student in every way. He was active in student media and even studied Chinese, taking a semester in Beijing.

“We think Trevor would've been a real world changer in journalism. This is why this is such a huge loss to us, it's a tragedy in every way,” Peterson said. “He had just a terrific journalistic mindset. He was focused, smart. He was really, really smart and meticulous in fact-checking. It's the kind of student that they gave us a great deal of optimism about the future of journalism and also the future of news media."

Video taken by a bystander and posted on Twitter shows the red helicopter land hard in the water and then capsize, its rotors slapping at the water.

Witnesses on a nearby waterfront esplanade said the helicopter was flying noisily, then suddenly dropped and quickly submerged. But the pilot appeared on the surface, holding onto a flotation device as a tugboat and then police boats approached.

"It was sinking really fast," Mary Lee, 66, told the New York Post. "By the time we got out here, we couldn't see it. It was under water."

A Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman said the Eurocopter AS350 went down just after 7 p.m. The aircraft was owned by Liberty Helicopters, a company that offers both private charters and sightseeing tours popular with tourists.

The NTSB says it has heard from other passengers in sister helicopters from the same company that the harnesses are difficult to get out of and that they weren't certain how to use knives they were given to use on the harnesses in case of an emergency.

"We have heard information come forward from a number of individuals and also in sister helicopters,” said NTSB Investigator Todd Gunther. “And we heard information people have been discussing that, and it is something we will be looking into."

Investigators know the flotation devices did deploy but are investigating if they deployed correctly and looking into all factors that may have caused the helicopter to roll upside down in the water.

The company referred inquiries to authorities, saying it was focused on the victims' families and the investigation. 

The skies over New York constantly buzz with helicopters carrying tourists, businesspeople, traffic reporters, medical teams and others. 

In 2009, a sightseeing helicopter of the same model and operated by the same company as the one in Sunday's wreck collided with a small, private plane over the Hudson River, killing nine people, including a group of Italian tourists.

A crash in October 2011 in the East River killed a British woman visiting the city for her 40th birthday. Two other passengers died weeks later as a result of their injuries.

A helicopter on a sightseeing tour of Manhattan crashed into the Hudson River in July 2007, shaking up the eight people aboard but injuring no one. In June 2005, two helicopters crashed into the East River in the same week. One injured eight people including some banking executives. The other hit the water shortly after takeoff on a sightseeing flight, injuring six tourists and the pilot.

Nigro and Police Commissioner James O'Neill said the rescue operation Sunday took place in a 4 mph current in water about 50 feet (15 meters) deep, under challenging conditions.

The cause of the crash has not been determined.

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