Harness may have tripped fuel shut-off switch in deadly New York helicopter crash

A preliminary report suggests the harness from a passenger in a New York sightseeing helicopter may have tripped the emergency fuel shut-off switch, causing the deadly crash involving two North Texans.

The detailed account comes from the pilot, who was the sole survivor of the helicopter crash that killed five people. Two of the passengers, Trevor Cadigan and Brian McDaniel, were from Dallas.

McDaniel, a Dallas firefighter, and Cadigan, an SMU journalism graduate, were honored at a memorial service this past weekend at their high school alma mater, Bishop Lynch.

Federal safety investigators released the preliminary report on the March 11 crash in New York's East River on Monday. All five passengers drowned after not being to release themselves from their safety harnesses.

Denny Kelly is an experienced pilot and has knowledge of NTSB investigations. He questions whether flying toward the river was the right choice.

“I don't agree with it,” Kelly said. “He's in a helicopter with an engine that's gone out, and he's flying over Manhattan with huge skyscrapers and millions of people walking around to get to the East River.”

In the new report, the pilot told investigators he instructed the passengers twice on how to use a cutting tool to release themselves from their harnesses. During the flight, he described passengers undoing their seatbelts and moving around for better views with their harnesses still attached.

The report says the pilot also told investigators he was already “committed to impact" when "he reached down for the emergency fuel shutoff lever" and realized "it was in the off position.” He then noticed "a portion of the front seat passenger's tether was underneath the lever.” The pilot switched the lever back on, but it was too late to restart the engine.

Kelly wonders why the pilot didn't look at the lever sooner.

“Anybody that flies airplanes, or aircraft, helicopters or airplanes will tell you one of the first things they learn from their instructor is that if the engine quits, you check the source of fuel.”

The report says the pilot then "observed engine pressure and fuel pressure warning lights.” He considered landing in Central Park but feared there were "too many people."

It is still not clear exactly what caused the engine failure and why the pontoons on the helicopter skids failed to keep the aircraft upright after the pilot crash landed.

Only the pilot survived. His account of what happened will help investigators. But Kelly says the NTSB will also closely cross-check every bit of his story before releasing a final report.

“From that investigation, they'll compare what he says to what they have found,” Kelly said. “And if there's discrepancies, they will get with him to straighten is out.”

The report also addresses the harnesses the passengers wore and the fact passengers were given a ‘cutter' to get themselves out in case of an emergency. Cadigan’s family has filed a lawsuit that alleges the harnesses were "a death trap.”               

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