Helicopter Crash on New York High-Rise Sparks Calls for Tougher Restrictions

Katie Reilly

Firefighters and police responded to a high-rise building in New York City after a helicopter crash-landed on the roof Monday afternoon, leaving one person dead and raising questions about why the helicopter had been flying on a rainy, foggy day in a flight-restricted part of the city.

The New York City Fire Department (FDNY) received a call about the crash atop a 54-story building at 787 Seventh Ave., in midtown Manhattan around 1:45 p.m. Monday.

The FDNY said there was one fatality, believed to be the pilot of the privately owned helicopter, which is often used for travel by business executives. The pilot was the only person aboard the Augusta A109E helicopter when it crash-landed, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) said in a tweet, noting that FAA air traffic controllers were not handling the flight.

The helicopter took off from a heliport at 34th Street in Manhattan and appeared to be heading back to its home airport in Linden, N.J., when it crashed on top of the Seventh Avenue building about 11 minutes later, New York Police Commissioner James O’Neill said at a press conference late Monday afternoon.

A fire caused by the crash on the roof of the building has been extinguished. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo said no one inside the building was injured, but he acknowledged the fears that the incident could have been worse.

“There was a fire that happened when the helicopter hit the roof. People that were in the building said they felt the building shake,” Cuomo told reporters shortly after the crash. “If you’re a New Yorker, you have a level of PTSD from 9/11. I remember that morning all too well. So as far as when you hear an aircraft hit a building, that’s where your mind goes.”

The ‘unusual’ crash fueled concerns about helicopters

Cuomo said it’s not yet clear what caused the helicopter to crash-land on the building. Flight regulations prevent aircraft from flying in that area. Since President Donald Trump took office in 2017, there has been a flight restriction banning aircraft from flying below 3,000 feet within one mile of Trump Tower, which is blocks away from where the crash occurred.

“We have no indication that there was a terror nexus here,” New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a press conference Monday afternoon.

“We don’t know what happened or why it happened. This is very unusual,” de Blasio said, adding that the crash raises questions about whether tighter regulations are necessary when it comes to the use of helicopters around the city.

New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney went further, describing the crash as a “nightmare” and calling for a ban on “unnecessary helicopters” over New York City.

“Today, New York City experienced yet another deadly helicopter crash, this time, with our nightmare of having a helicopter crash into a building. It appears that the pilot was killed and no one else was seriously injured — but this pilot’s death is one too many,” she said in a statement. “We cannot rely on good fortune to protect people on the ground. It is past time for the FAA to ban unnecessary helicopters from the skies over our densely-packed urban city. The risks to New Yorkers are just too high.”

The crash called to mind past helicopter accidents in New York City. Five people were killed in March 2018, when their sightseeing helicopter crashed into the East River between Manhattan and Queens. In May, a helicopter carrying only a pilot lost altitude and crashed into the Hudson River near its heliport. The pilot survived with minor injuries.

Jerry Kidrick, an assistant professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University says flying a helicopter in a dense city like New York presents special dangers for any pilot. “I would say that flying in New York City is extremely challenging given the forced landing areas, buildings and large obstructions,” he says.

Kidrick also says Monday’s rainy weather would have made visibility difficult for the pilot.

John Dellaportas — a lawyer and president of Stop the Chop NYNJ, an environmental organization that campaigns against the use of private helicopters in New York and New Jersey — says the crash-landing shows how dangerous helicopters can be. He thinks a government agency, like the Transportation Security Agency (TSA), should have tighter control over access to helicopters flying in the nation’s largest city.

“Private helicopters should not be allowed to fly anywhere near [New York City] for any reason period,” Dellaportas says. “Today’s tragedy punctuates that. People are going to continue to die in these accidents if there are no changes.”

People inside the building felt ‘minor tremors’

The building on Seventh Avenue is a 54-story office building that was built in 1986 and is home to restaurants and retail space on lower levels.

No one inside was injured, but Cuomo told reporters that people inside felt the building shake when the helicopter crashed.

Morgan Aries said he was working on the 14th floor of the building Monday when he felt “minor tremors” and heard what sounded like “a bunch of cinder blocks landing,” minutes before he and his colleagues were told to evacuate.

“I was pretty calm at the time because I didn’t know exactly what had happened. I thought maybe it was some minor local fire down in one of the kitchens or something,” Aries says. “It was once we got into the stairwell — just the amount of people in the stairwell caused a lot of congestion that we started getting a little more anxious about what was actually happening.”

The investigation into what caused the crash is still ongoing, though police have re-opened most surrounding streets to traffic.