NEW YORK - The man at the helm of a private helicopter that crashed into the East River on Tuesday, killing one passenger and injuring three others, was an experienced commercial pilot who owns a company that manages a local airport. Investigators are still trying to determine why the helicopter went down shortly after takeoff from a riverbank heliport.
Emergency crews arrived within seconds of the crash to find the helicopter upside-down in the murky water with just its skids showing on the surface. The pilot, Paul Dudley, and three passengers were bobbing, and witnesses reported a man diving down, possibly in an attempt to rescue the remaining passenger.
New York Police Department divers pulled Sonia Marra, 40, (pictured at left), from the water about 90 minutes after the Bell 206 Jet Ranger went down at around 3:30 p.m. She was pronounced dead at the scene.
Meanwhile, a portrait emerged of the pilot as an expert flier who once landed a plane in a field near Coney Island after its engine failed. Dudley owns Linden Airport Services, the company that manages the Linden, N.J., municipal airport under a 20-year contract with the city, Linden Mayor Richard Gerbounka said.
"He's an accomplished pilot," Gerbounka said.
Pilot Owen Kanzler, who said he has known Dudley for at least 20 years, said he saw Dudley's helicopter take off from the airport around 3 p.m. Flight conditions were calm, he said, with fair weather clouds above the altitude where Dudley would have been flying.
"As long as I've known Paul, he's owned and flown helicopters," he said. "He's a nice, outgoing man who does a fine job running the airport."
The passengers were friends of Dudley's family and were visiting New York to celebrate the birthdays of Marra and her stepfather Paul Nicholson, 71. He was on the chopper along with his wife Harriet, 60; and a friend of Marra's, Helen Tamaki, 43. The Nicholsons are British but live in Portugal; Marra and Tamaki, a citizen of New Zealand, lived in Sydney, Australia. The group had planned to do some sightseeing and then go to dinner in Linden, police said.
The pilot's wife, Sunhe Dudley, told The Associated Press that she had spoken to her husband briefly after the crash.
"These were actually very dear friends of ours that were in the helicopter," she said.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Dudley apparently reported problems in the helicopter and tried to turn around but instead crashed into the water.
The National Transportation Safety Board was on the scene Tuesday, and crews pulled the wreckage from the water about four hours after it went down. The chopper was taken to the police department's Floyd Bennett Field in Brooklyn. The airport in Linden, about 17 miles from the 34th Street heliport, was locked down briefly pending the arrival of Federal Aviation Administration and NTSB investigators.
The crash triggered a massive rescue effort, with a dozen boats and divers going down into the cold, gray water. Police officers doing a counterterrorism drill nearby jumped into the water wearing their uniforms, and without any rescue equipment they pulled the passengers to shore. Fire department rescue paramedics revived Harriet Nicholson and Tamaki, who were in critical condition; Paul Nicholson was stable. All were hospitalized. Dudley swam to shore and was uninjured.
"The pilot did indicate that there was somebody still in the helicopter," Lt. Larry Serras said. "By the time we swam to the helicopter it was completely submerged."
"It was a lot more difficult that I thought it was going to be," Serras, one of the first to reach the wreck, told "The Early Show" on Wednesday morning. He said the swim to the helicopter was longer than it looked from the river's edge, and given the strong currents, he doubts he would have made it without the flotation devices.
Officer Jason Gregory, one of the divers who brought Marra's body to the surface, said the helicopter was upside down in the sediment. He said she was in the back seat and wasn't buckled in by any seat belt.